The plate, the teacup, the kettle, and the saucer all crashed to the floor.
The Duke of Shippening let out an angry growl and aimed a kick at the young woman, who dropped to her knees on the floor, grasping for the flyaway tableware desperately. “Oaf!” he shouted. “Watch what you’re doing!”
The girl dodged the kick with the expertise of experience. She kept her gaze on the carpet as her shaking fingers closed around the cracked teacup.
“Oh…” she heard the Duke say. “It’s you.”
She knew who he meant by “you.” She’d seen the Dragon enter the room before the Duke had, and in her fright she had dropped the tea.
The Dragon never failed to frighten her.
Perhaps she should have been used to him by now. She had his appearance memorized by heart. His black hair falling in dead strands around his face of chiseled marble. The glow of fire in his black eyes. The confident swing in his stride. Yes, he looked like a man. But she knew he was so much more. She’d seem him for what he really was. Many times. Ever since her master, the Duke, had started corresponding with the demon.
“Lydia!” the Duke barked at her, pulling his pipe out of his mouth. “Leave the room.”
“She doesn’t have to,” the Dragon said, his voice saturated with malevolence.
But Lydia was all to glad for an excuse to leave. Heaping the cup and plate onto the tray, she rose to her feet, and keeping her eyes down, she sidled past the dragon with a shudder, even though he radiated heat.
The door shut behind her, and their voices faded away as she hurried down the hall of Oriana Palace.
She knew the passageways of the palace well now. The Duke of Shippening had taken it over some time ago. Pausing, she glanced at a picture on the wall. For a moment she felt a flash of surprise it had not been torn down. It was a painting of the family who had lived here only months before. King Fidel stood smiling, his arms wrapped protectively around the shoulders of his children: the princess Una and the prince Felix.
She frowned. Curse the Duke for invading Parumvir! He’d driven King Fidel out to exile, Felix was reported dead, and Una was missing. She grounded her teeth. More happy lives—thoughtlessly squandered by her cruel master.
In a burst of despair, Lydia dropped the tea tray on the nearest table and ran through the halls for the gardens.
The gardens of Oriana Palace were in seven levels, the seventh leading down into the mysterious Goldstone wood. Once they had been gardens of great beauty, but now they were filmed over with the ash and decay the Dragon brought wherever he went. But at least no one went there.
And being alone was exactly what she wanted.
The air was no less pungent with poison outdoors, but a crisp wind and morning mist made it less stale then in the palace.
Dashing away crystal tears, Lydia caught up her skirts and ran down the path that cut straight down through the levels. Only at the sixth level did she stop and turn in.
With a deep sigh she pulled herself up on the wall over looking the level underneath, and beyond that…Goldstone Wood.
No longer bothering to check the tears swiftly rolling down her smudged cheeks, she stared out to the trees.
Lydia was a lovely girl, even in that grey cast light. Her hair was flaxen and fell in unbridled curls down her back. A light spray of freckles danced across her nose. She was seventeen. She’d been the Duke’s personal attendant since she was thirteen. There were times when she hated her pretty face.
“I’m a slave,” she said aloud. “I’m no better then a slave.”
A branch breaking caught her attention. Perhaps the Dragon had come back out?
Gasping with fear, she slid off the wall and tore into a thick bush, scratching her skin as she did so.
The Dragon did not appear.
Relived, she put her hand down.
Right on top of something fluffy.
“Mreeooowll!” A cat screamed at her, then sped out from under the bush.
She stayed frozen in shock for a moment before she hurried out after it.
“Kitty!” she cried. “Kitty, come back! Kittykittykitty!”
The cat was nowhere to be seen amongst the bracken and the broken down statues.
“Kitty,” she called again.
Ever since she could recall, she loved cats. She had one as a child. The memory of it flashed back to her. The wide green eyes above the pink nose, surrounded by the fluff of cuteness. Since she served the Duke, she’d never seen a cat. He owned dogs, and his dogs had no appreciation for felines.
The kitty did not appear.
Dejected, Lydia fell to her knees, shoulders slumped. What a fool she had been to think she could have found a form of comfort here. She began to cry softly, her tears falling as thickly as the droplets of mist.
She looked up to see the same cat taking hesitant steps toward her.
Gently, she held out a hand and rubbed her fingers together. “Here kittykitty.”
With gathering confidence, the cat picked up pace and soon had his head rubbing underneath her hand, arching his back in pleasure.
Her heart bursting with delight, Lydia looked the cat over. His coat was orange, and his tale was fluffy. He raised a paw to bat at one of her stray curls, and as he did so she saw his face.
He had no eyes.
“Oh you poor sweetie!” she cooed, enfolding the cat in her arms. “Poor, poor thing.”
His warm body tucked against her, Lydia remounted the wall.
Her fingers brushed over his grimy coat absently, as she once more gazed out into the wood.
Over the cat’s purring, she fancied she heard the silver song of a bird. She didn’t know her birds very well, but she was sure she had heard it before. Perhaps a thrush.
Almost as if a ray of sunlight had broken through the fog, she felt warmed and calm.
Words drifted through her mind.
Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Song of Spheres recalling,
When your chains of fear have bound you tight,
Won’t you come to me?
"Yes,” she whispered, softly but firmly. “Yes, I will come.” A pause. “Right now.”
She stood up, dumping the cat from her lap.
Where the song had come from she did not know. Who she was going to she did not know.
But all at once, she was filled with desire more then ever to escape and to runaway from the cruel ownership of the Duke. She’d always planned to. Why not now?
Goldstone Wood lay before her, and people seemed terrified by it. It was the perfect place to hide.
Heart beating rapidly, Lydia took up her brown skirt again and began to speed down to the forest. To her surprise, the cat darted ahead of her and led the way.
Leaves crunched underfoot as she ran. She had to get away. From the Duke. From the Dragon. From her past.
The Duke of Shippening sat scowling in King Fidel’s former office, as he brooded over the Dragon’s words. The door burst open, and a guard hurried in. “Sir,” he gasped. “The watchmen have reported Lydia to have entered Goldstone Wood.”
The Duke slammed his fist down. “She’s made a run for it at last! I knew it! Get riders out and bring her back!”
The guard paled. “Sir…Goldstone Wood.”
“That’s an order!!!” he bawled.
Bowing, the guard left.
Lydia had not gone through the forest very long, when she came upon a bridge. Without a thought she stepped onto to it to cross over.
Suddenly the cat sprang in front of her, his tail resembling a bottle brush, his legs rigid, his ears were flat against his head, and his hair on end. He hissed.
“Lume’s crown!” Lydia gasped.
She tried to step around him.
He spat and swiped out a paw.
“Bad kitty!” she scolded, jumping back.
Frightened, Lydia darted around him, just missing his claws, and dashed for the other side.
Slowly, she turned back around to see the cat staring at her, body coiled to spring.
“Did you just…just…speak?” she stammered.
If a cat ever looked put out, this one left them all behind. “Yes.”
Her eyes as wide as the moon, she sputtered. “But it’s impossible.”
Relaxing enough to lick a paw, he replied, “Stranger things have happened.”
Before she could answer, there came the distant sounds of horses breaking through brush. Horrified, she spun back towards the palace. “The soldiers! They’re after me!”
“Don’t cross the bridge! Go through the stream!” the cat cried.
Something in his voice (even though he shouldn’t have had a voice) was so desperate, she didn’t dare disobey. Scooping the cat up in her arms, she jumped off the bridge into the stream. A shock ran through her body at the icy coldness of it. Ignoring it, she scrambled up onto the other side. The cat squirmed out from her arms and raced ahead of her. She fled through the trees in desperation, the cat flickering before her.
She could hear the sounds of the riders fording the stream, and forced herself to run faster.
Without warning, the ground dropped away in front of her.
Arms flailing to regain her balance, she teetered on the edge of a cliff. The forest floor went on below her. The cliff ran on as far to either side as she could see.
The blind cat was already springing from tiny foothold to narrow cleft down the cliff, and in a moment he had reached the ground. His eyeless face looked up at her. “Hurry!” he shouted.
She flung a glance over her shoulder. The horses would show any moment. There was no time to climb down. But if she jumped she would hurt, if not kill, herself.
“Jump!” the cat called. “I’ll catch you!”
“You’re a cat!” she yelled back.
“I’ll catch you! Jump!”
She had only two choices. If she stayed she would be caught and would be forced to return to slavery and despair. If she jumped…
The horses were coming nearer.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she leapt out into the air. For a moment, the wind whistled past her ears. Then she landed in strong arms.
Lydia’s eyes flew open in shock.
For the briefest moment she saw the face of a man. Then her face was shoved up against his shirt by a firm hand, and she felt him began to run.
In little time, she felt his body slide down to the ground and her head pulled away from his chest. They were lying under a bush, and she could not see him for he was above her, and one hand was immovably pressed over her mouth.
The mounted soldiers appeared on the top of the cliff.
“Where’d she go?” one shouted.
“Vanished,” another muttered. “Vanished into the wood. Swallowed up.”
There was a dreadful silence, then with terrified faces, the men reined their horses around and galloped away.
The two refugees remained silent, save for the thumping of Lydia’s heart.
Then the body over her rolled away, and the hand dropped from her face. She scrambled to her knees with a shrieking gasp.
Across from her was a man clad all in scarlet, with sunshine colored hair. His eyes were covered in scarlet silk patches. A crimson cap perched on his head with rakish attitude.
Her mind spun.
Right before she’d jumped there had been a blind cat underneath her. She’d fallen into the arms of a man who was also blind, in a forest famed for being mysterious.
Lydia was a smart enough girl to know that it was not.
“You’re a man!” she gasped.
He flashed a smile that made the sunlight dull in comparison. “The lady’s observation skills do me credit.”
She began to shake.
His smile faltered, like a candle almost blowing out. “I say, it’s all right, dear girl. You needn’t fear.”
“You were a cat.”
He tilted his head to the side, his mouth twisting in a smirk. “You’ve seen a dragon turn into a man. Is a cat becoming a man any stranger?”
She shook her head. “Who are you?”
“Ah, of course.” He rose to his feet and blessed her with an elegant bow. “I am Eanrin, Knight of Farthestshore.”
The name was known to Lydia. It was in the fairy tales of childhood, but it had always been associated with peace and joy…and freedom. There was no reason to fear Farthestshore. She hugged her knees. “I am free.” The thought overwhelmed her. “Where shall I go?”
He pulled her up with a hand and gestured forward. “Follow me.”
The sightless man led on with the same confidence that he had as a cat. Lydia followed him. What other choice did she have?
After some time he ducked underneath a curtain of ivy, and she followed suit. Blinking with surprise, she saw that she was no longer in a wood, but in a small house with a bed, a table covered in food, and a basin of water. “What is this place?” she demanded.
“A refuge of my Master. You will be safe here, and the faeries will attend to your needs. You must stay here until I send word that the Near World is safe.”
She gasped. “You’re leaving me.”
Pausing with one foot already out the door, he explained, “I was commissioned in the guardianship of Princess Una and Felix. I must return to Oriana and wait for their arrival. If I can not personally come back for you, I shall send someone else.”
“How am I to know you will? What if I leave after you do?” Lydia cried, trembling.
He drew the foot back in. “Don’t leave here, Lydia.”
She could have sworn she’d never told him her name.
“You are in the Wood Between. Stay here and you will be safe. I promise I will not forget you. Please trust me.” Though he had no eyes, his face was fraught with pleading.
Lydia sucked in a deep breath, pushing her lips together tightly. Men had never given her a reason to trust them. But Eanrin was a cat. Kind’ of. Maybe. Cats had always been her friends. She trusted cats. Besides what other choice did she have?
Gradually, she nodded. “Okay,” she whispered. “I will trust you.”
Smiling again, he swept a bow. “Thank you, lady. I shall send one for you. You have the word of Eanrin, Chief Poet of Rudiobus.”
And in a moment he was gone, leaving Lydia gasping in surprise.
The blind cat purred with contentment in the arms of Prince Felix. All was well. The Dragon had been killed. The Duke had been killed. King Fidel, and Una, and Felix were restored to their royal positions. Una was to marry the Prince of Farthestshore. The royal family of Parumvir had taken refuge at the coastal city of Glencrocus.
Now the cat was listening in as the Prince of Farthestshore bade farewell to Una.
“I must find my servants and see to your father’s interests as well. But I will return for you, Una. Will you wait for me?”
The princess smiled before the bustling crowd swept them apart.
Hurriedly, the cat wiggled out of Felix’s arms and dashed after the Prince. “My Prince,” he said in a hushed voice. “When you go to Oriana, will you also pick up Lydia? She waits.”
His kind eyes smiling, the Prince said, “I will return for her for she is my child.”
The cat flicked his tail in satisfaction and turned to leave.
He looked back.
The cat bowed gracefully, his whiskers twitching, before he dashed away.
Lydia had waited long. Like the cat had said, all her needs had been attended to by the invisible fairies. In the lonely times she thought she heard a thrush sing, which somehow comforted her.
One day, the wait came to an end.
She sprang up at the voice and at the silhouette of the man in the door. At once she saw it was not the cat, but he said he might not come himself. “Who are you?”
“I am the Prince of Farthestshore.”
The silvery song of a thrush trickled through her mind.
Won’t you come to me?
In that moment, Lydia knew without a doubt that he was indeed the Prince of Farthestshore, and that it was he who had called for her.
“Yes,” she said, although he had not asked the question out loud. “I will come.”
The Prince led Lydia with many other people along a path to Glencrocus. The royal household of Parumvir was waiting for them, and in the exciting reunions of friends, Lydia felt slightly lost.
“Kitty!” Lydia cried, swooping the blind cat up in her arms in delight. The next moment she remembered that he wasn’t just a cat and she dropped him as if he’d burnt her.
“I say,” the cat exclaimed, stumbling as he regained his footing from the sudden drop. “I know the rumor goes that cats always land on their feet, but you could give a chap some warning.”
“Sorry,” she said, blushing.
His tail flicked twice. “You’re to come to the inn with me. King Fidel will find a room for you I’m sure. And you’re invited to the wedding of the Prince of Farthestshore and Princess Una. The Prince asked you to come.”
Lydia’s jaw dropped. A wedding? To which she was invited, as a guest not a servant? A guest invited by the bridegroom himself? “Yes,” she gasped, joy filling her heart. “Yes!”
He gestured with his head to follow him, and she did. “But what shall I do after…” she struggled on the words. “What shall happen to me?”
“I’ve talked with the Prince about that. He agrees with me that you will be taken under care of a woman named Imraldera until you have found a place in the world. You will like her. She’s the sort that makes everything better.” They had now come to the inn, and he halted at the steps, one paw curled under him. “And one more thing. Don’t let on that I talk or change into a man. Una and Felix don’t know about that yet, and it would be rather awkward if you started talking about it, if you get my meaning.”
She laughed and nodded.
The wedding took place by the sea. Lydia smoothed down the folds of a sky blue dress that had been given to her, before resuming to watch the beautiful ceremony. She breathed deep, thinking about how wonderful her life had become.
All of a sudden, a cat’s tail wound around her legs. She looked down in surprise to see the blind cat. Last she’d seen him, he’d been by Prince Felix.
“I’ve got Imraldera after me,” he whispered. “Intercept her if you would, I’d be most grateful.” Then in an orange streak, he was off.
Lydia looked up to see a woman moving through the crowd towards her, turning her head in a searching manner. “Are you looking for a cat?” she asked softly.
The woman was dark skinned and dark haired, and she wore green and lavender. Her lips rounded in surprise. “Yes, I am,” she said, equally soft. “Have you seen one?”
“Uh-huh. He told me you were coming.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Told you—?” Then a knowing smile spread over her pretty face. “Ah, you must be Lydia. My Prince told me about you. I am Dame Imraldera. You will come with me after the wedding, yes?”
“Yes,” Lydia replied. The woman, who seemed both young and old, seemed like an instant friend. They went silent as they watched the end of the ceremony.
Then Lydia whispered, “The kitty…do you know him?”
The sparkling black eyes of Imraldera laughed.
Lydia reddened. “I mean the cat…I mean…the man…Eanrin!”
She nodded. “Yes…I know him.”
Something in her voice suggested more then friendship, and Lydia looked intently at her. But her expression gave nothing away, and Lydia had to douse her sudden curiosity.
The ceremony was complete, and the cheers of the crowd filled the air. Lydia closed her eyes in contentment. Where would her life lead from here? It did not matter. She had a new master, one who cared for her. She would follow the Prince. True freedom.
And in that moment, Lydia heard the voice of the sea rising up to join in the singing of the stars.