Novel Everyone's a Catgirl!

Discussion in 'Community Fictions' started by DoubleBlind, Sep 28, 2021.

  1. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    A note from DoubleBlind: This chapter is being reuploaded due to a misunderstanding on KDP's guidelines on my part. I apologize for the inconvenience.


    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    ---

    Chapter 132: Rhododendrons and Heather

    Leaving Shi Island was bittersweet. Tristan and Ara must’ve shared at least half a dozen farewells and promises before we finally departed, and I am proud to say I remained silent the entire time. I wasn’t about to get in their way and ruin the moment. Ara had her work cut out for her, to be sure. Between her, Lynn, and many of the other capable catgirls on the island, I was confident that Tristan would return to an island he’d be proud of.

    Portia snaked across the crowded sloop, grumbling and muttering curses that closely resembled the ones I’d hear out of the mouths of sailors back in my old world. She’d gone above and beyond the call of duty, and I made sure I thanked her for all the work she did. I’d have to make it up to her later.

    From the moment we left until the dock was finally out of sight, Ara and Lynn never moved. Tristan watched them the entire time, and I pretended not to notice. I couldn’t imagine the thoughts going through Tristan’s head, and I didn’t try to. Instead, I figured it was best to look at the future and not dwell on what could have been or what we could’ve done better. What was done was done, and we still had one more man to collect. For better or worse.

    “Do we need to pick up anything for either of you?” I asked, passing glances between the twins.

    Destiny put a finger to her lips. “I think I got everything I need in my [Cat Pack].”

    “You’d better,” Ravyn said with a raised brow. “[Alchemist]s are an expensive Class.” She shifted the weight from one curvy leg to the other. “You’re not going to run out in the middle of a fight, are you?”

    Destiny blinked. “Well, we certainly won’t be fighting all that much.”

    Uh oh. She’s making some dangerous assumptions there.

    “Even if that may or may not be the case,” Keke said with her beautiful back turned to us, “we want to make sure we’re prepared. Cannoli, Matt, Ravyn, and I are all experienced with [Alchemy].”

    “Some of us more than others,” Ravyn commented.

    Keke glared over her shoulder, then turned back to the rope she was fastening. “It’s good, Portia!”

    “Thanks a ton! The wind is rough today!” Portia called.

    “Wind’s in a bit of a mood, I believe,” Lara said.

    Well, that was a weird comment to make.

    “Oh! And Destiny is a great [Alchemist],” Lara continued excitedly. “She helps people all the time!”

    To be honest, I had my doubts. Though I struggled to remember the exact details, I was pretty sure I remembered them being somewhat despondent when it came to their maidly duties. Then again, perhaps my mere presence was the main culprit for how they reacted. Celestia did have a strong collar on these girls, it seemed.

    “Okay, so then you’re fine. But I do have to warn you, we’ve seen a good share of Encroachers and Defiled, so I just wanted to make sure you’re prepared. We can always go and collect materials,” I said.

    “Oh, I, uh, I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Destiny said as she played with a lock of her hair.

    Tristan parted the girls, seating himself between them. “Did I miss anything?”

    I shook my head. “Not at all. We’re just making sure we’re all prepared. How are you holding up?”

    Tristan took a few seconds to reply. “I’m doing okay. I trust Ara with my life, and I think she’ll do a great job. I’m sad I can’t be there to help her, but…from what you’ve told me, I can see the reason in assembling the men.” He reached for my hand. “I want to thank you for helping me see what was really going on, and at the same time, I want to offer any assistance that I can. We shouldn’t be struggling alone.”

    I reciprocated without a second thought. “I’m with you, man.”

    We shared a smile, and I caught Ravyn rolling her eyes within my peripheral vision. When our hands parted, I looked at Lara. “So how does [Conjurer] work?”

    Lara tilted her head. “Meaning?”

    Tristan laughed. “I’m quite curious myself. I’m still delving into the magical arts, so I’d like to get to know both of you a little more.” Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I was sure he shot a look in Destiny’s direction at the end. “Think you could help me out?”

    Lara blinked. Her eyes wandered for some time like she was thinking about it. “[Conjurer] is good at three Elements. Water, Wind, and Earth.”

    “Oh, so you summon nature?” asked Tristan.

    “Uh, sorta? More like, I plead with it and ask for help, and then I hope it listens. Like a kitten, really.”

    How awfully honest of you. I hope Mother Nature doesn’t frown upon your word choice.

    I gawked and inched closer. I caught a gentle whisper from behind me and made room for Cannoli. She sat down beside me and listened in.

    “So, what do you mean exactly? I haven’t touched any magic-related Classes, so I’m still learning.” I heard Ravyn snicker, and I shot her a glare.

    “Erm, I’m having a hard time finding a way to explain this.” Lara scratched her ear and bowed her head. “Let’s see, it’s kind of like riding a bike. You can’t really explain it to someone, but when you do it, it just makes sense.”

    Silence fell upon us. The calm wind blew through our hair, and a salty smell entered my nostrils. Lara’s explanation made no sense whatsoever. Considering it might just be a modern perspective of mine, I looked at Keke, Ravyn, then turned around to look at Cannoli beside me. Each of them wore bewildered stares.

    “I am unsure what you mean by that,” Ceres admitted a few feet from behind me. She’d been standing next to Portia the entire time, and I assumed she heard in on the conversation. “Could you please elaborate?”

    Lara thought again, taking her time to respond. “So, like, if I start talking to Wind, or Earth, or Water, I ask them for favors. If they like me, then they do stuff for me.”

    I opened my mouth to speak but quickly shut it. Each time Lara spoke, I found myself more confused. “You…talk to the land?”

    Destiny nodded. “Yeah. When they’re on good terms, the Elements respond, and then they’ll do her favors.” She shrugged. “I have no idea how it works. I understand potions and tonics much better. But it’s true!” She elbowed her sister playfully. “Show ’em, sis!”

    “The Elements are kind of shy, though. I’m not sure any of them will listen to me right now,” Lara admitted.

    “Oh, go on! Give it a try!”

    Lara turned her head to the never-ending ocean. “Okay, I’ll try.” She put her left palm out toward the sea. “Water, can I ask for your help for a bit?” A pause followed. “I know, but I have some new people with me, as you can see… right, no, I know that, but I… uh huh. Okay? But I might have to fight.” Lara’s frown deepened. “I know, but Earth isn’t around right now. I’m out in the middle of the ocean, so I’m asking you.” Lara sighed. “I understand. Will you come when I need you in a fight? Yeah, but… okay. But if they need healing, and I mean some strong healing, I can depend on you, right?” Lara’s shoulders slumped. “I’ll ask Wind, then.”

    I’m not sure how familiar Tristan was with Lara, but based on what I’d seen, I was beginning to have second thoughts about taking her with us. Was this a typical trait for all [Conjurer]s?

    “So, can [Conjurer]s normally talk with the Elements like you do?” I asked. I had to know. It was the burning question that would keep me up at night if I didn’t get answers.

    “Some of them,” said Lara.

    That’s not a good look for you, Lara.

    Tristan put a hand on her shoulder. “So, what are you going to do now? Sounds like the water was having issues?”

    Lara shrugged, then whipped her long, blonde hair behind her. “Water’s in a weird mood right now. I know I shouldn’t say that out loud, but Water tends to get upset with me. Something about attunement and not being proper for the situation.”

    “The elements don’t talk.” Ravyn crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.

    I raised my hand. “So, then, you can’t talk to the elements, Ravyn?” The look she gave me could kill most men. “I’m sorry. Please continue, Lara.”

    Lara made several noises resembling a hissing cat, shooting a glare at Ravyn all the while. “Yes. They can.” She puffed out her cheeks, then snapped her head back around. “I’ll ask Wind, then.”

    Is this going to be the process every time there’s a fight? This does not bode well.

    “Before you do, you said the elements are shy.” I met Lara’s eyes. “Does that mean the elements have personalities?”

    “Yes! Absolutely! Hang on, let me converse with Wind.”

    Here we go.

    Lara raised both hands into the air. I was half-expecting lightning bolts to strike the tips of her fingers. “Wind, can you hear me?” After a pause, Lara flinched. “How are you doing? Ahh, I’m sorry to hear that. Is she okay?” Lara’s expression continued to change, and I wished I could hear what was going on between her and, uh…Wind. “That’s horrible! Well, don’t listen to her. She’s wrong about you. In every way I can imagine. Uh-huh. Yep! So, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but can you do me a quick favor?”

    “Tristan, were you aware of this?” I asked.

    He swallowed and scratched the back of his neck. “Y-yeah!”

    I see.

    “Thank you!” Lara clapped her hands together, then began to whip her right arm through the air. The wind wrapped around her wrist in ribbons of green light. As she continued, more and more of the strange winds began to tighten and converse around her, enveloping the entirety of her arm. There was a sudden popping noise, and then the currents converged into a single ball of wispy air with a gentle light in the middle. The sphere did nothing on its own, just rotated around her head. “I now have Wind with me! Now Wind will perform an action I ask of it. Wind is kind, under-standing, and exceptionally creative, so her and I often see eye-to-eye.”

    So, there was some reasoning behind what she was doing.

    “What can you do now?” I asked.

    Lara rose to her feet, then looked off into the distance where we couldn’t see a thing. She turned her head to Portia. “Your name is Portia, right?”

    Portia nodded. “Yeah, what’s up?”

    “Can you stop the boat for a moment?”

    “Sloop,” she corrected. “And yeah, hold on.”

    The sloop slowed, and the waves became gentler with the reduction in speed. After a couple of minutes, the sloop came to a halt, and Lara offered her one of Shi Island’s curtsies.

    “Thank you so much, Portia,” said Lara. She directed her attention back to the ocean and held out her hand. “Observe the power of nature!”

    I’m watching.

    “I command you, spirit of nature! [Whirlwind]!” A whistle soared past my ears. It was loud enough that it almost hurt. Above us, a dark cloud formed, and lightning and thunder roared within. The orb of wind that Lara had summoned disappeared, and shortly after, a gust of wind blew past us, forming a miniature tornado some distance away from us from below the cloud. Before I could even register what happened, the cloud disappeared, and with it, the wind. Lara fell to one knee, panting. “That’s— Hold on for just a second.” She heaved, then rested back into a cross-legged position. “She wasn’t in the best of moods right now, so it was a little weak. But that’s a small example of what [Conjurer] can do!”

    I had no idea what to say. On the one hand, it appeared to have a ton of potential. However, if it was so fickle, then I had my concerns.

    Is nothing ever easy?

    [​IMG]
     
  2. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    Chapter 246: I Want to Believe

    The stay in Irisil was two days longer than Keke wanted. Cailu had searched high and low for a caravan that could leave immediately, but the carriages they needed had made an unexpected journey to Ronona. That left them at the mercy of the carriage’s return.

    It was hard to wander through the obsidian alleys and corridors. Passing the robed catgirls was a constant reminder of Cannoli’s departure. Meals seemed less vibrant without her around. Their typical Party of five had shrunk to three, and the knot in Keke’s stomach urged her that she was next.

    Cailu confirmed as much on their next dinner together.

    “Keke, you will proceed to [Hunter] as your Second Class; is that correct?”

    Keke could feel Matt and Ceres’s gazes both fall on her. She did her best not to squirm in her chair. “Yes.”

    “Wonderful. Your prowess with a bow will lend well to [Hunter],” Cailu replied.

    “Wow. A compliment,” Matt murmured Keke’s thoughts aloud, his tone flat.

    Cailu ignored him. “Our final destination before Ronona is Khasstead. Many of Nyarlea’s finest [Sniper]s and [Whisper]s hail from their ranks. There, we will find you an adequate teacher.”

    Matt raised a hand. “[Sniper] is pretty self-explanatory, but what’s a [Whisper]?”

    Kirti answered before anyone else could. “More Encroacher than catgirl.” She curled her fingers as if scratching the air. “They’ll dine on your fingers and toes if you let them.”

    Cailu sighed.

    “Some of Nyarlea’s finest warriors are [Whisper]s, Kirti,” Zahra countered.

    “Er, sorry. Gonna need a little bit more than that.” Matt scratched the back of his head.

    Keke wrinkled her nose at Kirti’s unkind comment. “[Whisper]s adapt Skills and Spells from Encroachers and Defiled.”

    “I have heard they can take on aspects of both! And commune with Encroachers!” Ceres said, clasping her hands to her chest. “In all of my years on Shi Island, I never met one in the flesh.”

    “As to be expected. Third Classes are a rarity on the outlying islands. However, should you wish,” Cailu turned back to Keke, neatly ushering the conversation back to its point, “[Whisper] is a viable option once you master [Hunter].”

    Keke nodded. She’d met a [Whisper] once when she was still a kitten. The [Whisper] had traveled to Ni Island to help kill a Defiled that wreaked more havoc in Junonia than Elona and Aurora could handle. It had been so long ago that Keke couldn’t recall her name. What she did remember was the woman speaking with roaches to help her hunt and then walking on water to reach her prey.

    “I want to be a [Sniper]. Like my mom,” Keke announced, a little embarrassed to admit it at the table. “I…I still have some of her equipment back home. I didn’t want to use it until I was ready.”

    “Well, doesn’t that just warm the heart?” Kirti laid a hand over her chest where her heart would be.

    If she had one. “My mother was famous,” Keke snapped, feeling a little indignant. “Queen Melasia called on her Party for help all of the time.”

    “Ah, mine was, too. But everyone tends to know your name if you’re a [Necromancer],” Kirti said as nonchalantly as if they were discussing the weather.

    Matt snorted. “That would explain a lot.”

    Kirti’s eyes flashed, and she opened her mouth.

    Cailu’s hand shot into the air before any more words could escape the [Witch Doctor]. “Enough.”

    An awkward silence fell over the table. For the first time in years, Keke wondered what her father had been like. Elona had stopped talking about him when Keke stopped asking questions as a kitten—he became more akin to a fable than a real person. She’d never met him, and she and Elona were fine by themselves. And yet…was he like Cailu? Eloquently spoken and driven by a dozen different motives? Or maybe like Matt. Kind-hearted and funny, if sometimes a bit headstrong.

    What kind of man had her mother cared for?

    Ceres shifted in place, brushing her skirts over her lap, then spoke. “What is Khasstead like?”

    Cailu pushed his plate aside and rested his hands on the table. “Truth be told, I would compare it most to Ni Island’s villages. It is surrounded by forests, and the inhabitants use the landscape to their advantage. The city does not require walls for protection like Irisil.”

    “Maybe it’ll feel a little bit like home,” Keke said with a shrug. She was doing her best to take any small comforts she could; the distant look on Matt’s face was heartbreaking.

    “Yeah, that’s a plus,” Matt added, though his tone sounded detached.

    “How far out are we from Khasstead?” Zahra asked.

    “Another three days once we leave Irisil. Then four days more to Ronona,” Cailu replied.

    Keke absently picked at a stack of meozuna greens with her fork. Her appetite had evaporated. A slow idea formed at the back of her mind, and her ears flicked forward as if responding to an itch. “Do I really have to leave the Party when we get there?”

    Cailu furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

    “Well, could we not just go straight to Ronona and then to Khasstead on your way back to the docks?” Keke felt foolish asking. The idea had sounded much better before it reached her tongue.

    “Why would you wish to do that?” Cailu asked.

    Kirti sputtered a laugh into her drink. Zahra favored her with a frustrated glower.

    “She could meet the queen that way,” Matt suggested. A tiny gleam of hope had returned to his dark eyes. “Seems unfair that just me and Ceres get to meet her.”

    Cailu crossed his arms over his chest. “There will be ample time to meet Queen Nehalennia once you advance to your Second Classes. To keep you in our caravan would only delay your training, Keke.”

    “The sooner you begin, the sooner we will reunite,” Ceres said slowly. “I understand this is difficult. For all of us. But it is only temporary.”

    Temporary. There was that word again. When they were still on Ichi and discussing just how they’d go about finding teachers for their Second Class, ‘temporary’ sounded short and sweet. She clung to the idea of their reunion existing not so far away. But as Keke watched Ravyn leave their number, then Cannoli, it was beginning to feel final. Like their parting was forever.

    “Right. Of course. That was silly of me,” Keke murmured.

    Matt shook his head as his shoulders slumped just a hair. “I don’t think it was.”

    Keke lifted her napkin from her lap and dabbed her mouth. “Well then, I guess it’s decided. Excuse me.” She pushed herself away from the table as she set her napkin on the plate.

    Matt moved to follow when Ceres placed a hand on his shoulder and stood. “A moment, Keke?”

    Keke blinked, looking between them. Matt shrugged. “Oh. Sure.”

    The conversation resumed after Keke and Ceres walked away from the table. Cailu was asking Matt something about his Second Class choice. Keke couldn’t help but tune Cailu out—his voice was beginning to grate on her nerves. The more she considered it, the more she hoped her father wasn’t like him at all.

    They padded up the stairs to their room, and Ceres closed the door before speaking.

    “I understand this is quite difficult on you, Cannoli, and Sir Matt,” she began.

    Keke took a seat on the edge of her bed and crossed her legs. She wanted to say that Ceres had it easiest of them all. She would be with Matt until he returned to Catania. But Elona had always reminded her that wearing jealousy with grace was an impossible task.

    Keke remained silent and waited.

    Ceres continued, “I did not realize Cannoli would leave our Party so quickly, and I hope to grant you enough time.”

    “Enough time for what?”

    Ceres reached into her [Cat Pack] and procured a glass vial filled with a clear liquid. It didn’t look like any potion Keke had ever seen. “I am certain my time with Lucia did not pass unnoticed.”

    “Not really. But what does that have to do with this?”

    A light pink hue touched Ceres’s cheeks. “Well, you see, Lucia gave me this.” She stepped forward and handed Keke the vial.

    Keke uncorked the bottle and sniffed it. Light floral scents filled her nostrils and warmed her face. “Perfume?”

    “Ah, no,” Ceres chuckled nervously. “Pour a drop on your fingers.”

    Very carefully, Keke tipped the vial to its side and watched the liquid slowly trickle down the glass. Much slower than she’d expected. A small circle of it appeared on her hand, and she rubbed it between her pinched fingertips. It was silken and viscous, gliding against her skin with ease.

    Then, her fingers began to warm as if she’d slipped them into a freshly prepared bathtub.

    “What is this for?” Keke murmured, but provocative images were already starting to form as she slid her fingers back and forth.

    “Anything you can imagine. It is,” Ceres cleared her throat, “safe for any use.”

    Keke felt her breath quicken. It was a little strange to feel embarrassed around Ceres after their time in Abalone. But the pictures conjured by the scent and warming sensation of the liquid were vivid and personal. “I…I can use this with Matt?”

    A knowing smile twitched at the corner of Ceres’s lips. “Precisely.”

    Keke touched her throat, and the warming sensation followed. Goddess above… “Could you send him up?”

    Ceres’s smile widened. “Of course, Keke.”

    Ceres vanished behind the door, and Keke’s fingers trembled around the vial. Even if she wasn’t ready for a kitten of her own, Ceres had gifted her something that felt as if it went against Saoirse herself.

    A way to unite with the man who had her heart.

    [​IMG]
     
  3. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    A note from DoubleBlind:

    [​IMG]

    Tomorrow's the final day to join the Saphira Tier during January and score yourself a Keke acrylic pin drawn by the incredible Maon! Click here for the Pin FAQ!

    ---​

    Chapter 247: Amor Fati (NSFW)

    Keke sat on the edge of the bed, watching the hypnotic dance of the tiny, flickering flame inside the oil lamp. Her heart hammered against her chest, and her stomach tightened with anticipation. She struggled with her nerves, chiding herself for their sudden flare-up.

    This isn’t the first time we’ve been intimate, she reminded herself for the dozenth time since Ceres had left.

    But as Keke rolled the glass vial between her fingers, it certainly felt like the first time.

    She wondered what all Lucia dabbled in if she so readily had a concoction like this one and whether the woman’s interests would be considered blasphemous to Saoirse’s followers. Sex with a man was meant to bring new kittens into the world—to maintain the population and ensure Nyarela’s continued existence. No one ever talked about how fun it could be and how good it would feel.

    The door opened, and Keke started at the sound. Calm yourself. She hissed in a breath and closed her eyes.

    “Keke? You okay?” Matt asked as he closed the door behind him.

    “Yeah, I’m sorry. I was caught up in my own thoughts.”

    He nodded and moved to sit next to her. “I know what you mean.”

    Keke inhaled and her ears perked. Matt’s familiar scent filled the room, setting her at ease and slowing her heart. She leaned her head against his shoulder and rested a hand on his thigh. “I… I realize we won’t be separated for too long. But it’s beginning to seem like forever.”

    “Tell me about it.” Matt sighed and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I feel like I’m watching my family split one person at a time.”

    She nodded into his chest. “Me, too.” She breathed him in, and her heart skipped. “I asked for you because, well, Ceres gave me something.”

    “Something bad?” Matt’s eyebrows raised, and his stare flickered with concern.

    “No. The opposite, I think.” Keke let the vial roll from her palm to her other hand, and then she popped off the cork. “It just takes a little bit…” After urging a drop onto her fingers, she slid her hand beneath Matt’s shirt and massaged the concoction over the length of his spine.

    A gasp of surprise caught in his throat. “Ceres gave you lube?”

    Keke blinked down at the bottle. “Is that what this is called?” Her fingers tingled and warmed, the pleasant sensation echoing on Matt’s skin.

    “I mean, I guess ‘lubricant,’ technically.” His chin lolled to his chest, and he moaned as Keke worked the liquid into his muscles. “I didn’t think it existed here.”

    There was some relief in not having to explain her intentions with the…lube. Though, admittedly, she felt embarrassed for never having heard of it before. Matt had recognized it so quickly…

    Matt’s cheeks flushed as he looked at Keke, then the door. “Ceres isn’t coming back tonight?”

    “No.”

    He nodded and held out a hand, “Can I try?”

    She passed him the vial, and her breathing sped.

    Matt accepted the bottle, then tugged at her sleeve. “Take off your shirt.”

    Keke did as she was told, curious to find out what he had in mind.

    “And your bra.”

    Another jolt of excitement shot from the tips of her ears to her tail as she carefully unhooked the back of her bra, then tossed it away to join her shirt.

    Matt tipped a few droplets of lube into one hand, then the other, before setting the bottle on the nightstand. He rested both hands on Keke’s shoulders and pressed his thumbs just beneath her collarbone on either side. His fingers traced the length of her neck and her upper back, massaging against the tension she hadn’t realized was there.

    “How does that feel?” he asked.

    “Really good,” Keke murmured, finding it difficult to keep track of where his hands were moving.

    “I’ve never done the erotic massage thing before—”

    “I’ve never heard that term until today,” Keke interjected between sighs.

    Matt chuckled. “Just tell me if it stops feeling good.”

    She grinned, hoping he couldn’t feel how hard her heart was pounding. “Okay.”

    His hands traveled south until he cupped her breasts in his palms. Divots around his fingertips formed as he kneaded into her skin, and the warm, tingling sensation she felt on her shoulders moved with him, coating her chest and nipples with the lubricant.

    A tiny hiss of pleasure escaped between Keke’s teeth, and her back arched, granting him easier access to her chest and stomach. It was unlike anything she’d ever felt before—sweat was sticky and didn’t offer the same kind of slick surface that Lucia’s concoction created. The warmth of Matt’s hands compounded with the liquid’s heat, and she shuddered beneath his touch. Yearning rushed between her legs as she gripped two handfuls of the blanket and curled her tail around Matt’s waist.

    She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and moaned. Her hair tickled the small of her back, and her hands tightened around the blanket. Matt lowered one of his arms, and Keke watched beneath heavy lids as his hand disappeared beneath her skirt. She felt him pull her underwear to the side, then the familiar pressure of his fingers against her heat.

    “Damn. I must be doing something right,” Matt murmured as he teased her opening with his fingertips.

    Her hips rocked forward on their own, begging him to enter. She whimpered, then shuddered when he pinched her nipple. “I-I feel like I’m melting,” she stammered. “Goddess above, it’s hard to breathe.”

    “Should I stop?” he teased. He slid his fingers past the first joint, and Keke squealed.

    “No!”

    “I didn’t think so.” He stretched her wide as his hand explored deeper. Whether it was the lube or her own desperate desire that made her so readily yield, she couldn’t say. But he plied and penetrated her without meeting any resistance whatsoever. “Good girl.”

    Keke’s heart skipped, and another breathy moan vibrated on her tongue. Hearing his praise was more addicting than any vice she’d ever encountered. More rewarding than [Fishing]. She so badly wanted to please him just to keep hearing him say those words.

    Between his hand on her chest and his fingers kneading into the depths of her body, Keke wasn’t sure how long she could hold back. Not yet… She reached between her legs and grabbed his wrist. “Matt?”

    “Sorry, did I hurt you?” He froze and searched her face.

    Keke couldn’t help but smile. He was always looking out for her best interests. “No, not at all. I, um, was wondering if we could do something else?”

    “Oh, yeah. Sure.” He carefully withdrew his fingers, much to Keke’s immediate, throbbing regret.

    Ignoring the pulses between her legs, she stood and pulled down her skirt and panties. “You strip, too.”

    Matt added his clothes to the growing pile, and Keke dragged him back down to the bed, positioning him on his back. She mounted him at the hips and leaned in to steal his kiss, thrusting her tongue through his lips. He groaned and gripped her thighs.

    Breathless, Keke leaned back and took the vial from the nightstand, pouring another circle of lube into her palm. Matt held out his hand for more, and she did the same for him before replacing the bottle. He rubbed his palms together, then groped her backside, letting his hands slide up and around to her chest. She leaned into his touch, rocking in the same direction he moved, goosebumps prickling her skin.

    She reached down and coated his shaft with the lube, carefully pumping him from base to tip. His brown eyes burned into her as she worked, and his hands moved more fervently. As she repositioned herself over him and lifted her tail, her nerves returned. Would it hurt?

    “Keke, wait.” Matt paused and touched her shoulder. “I thought we agreed no kittens?”

    “We did.” She sat back and spread the cheeks of her flank with one hand while slowly positioning Matt with the other. “That hasn’t changed.”

    His eyes widened. “You’re sure about this?”

    “More than anything.” Keke took a deep breath, lowered herself down by an inch, and then realized the fit was even tighter than she thought it’d be. “A-ah…

    “Go slow,” Matt said. “As slow as you need.”

    “Okay.” With another breath, she willed her body to relax around him. She’d never fit anything bigger than Matt’s fingers inside of her. Even with the lube, he felt enormous.

    “Maybe this’ll help.” Matt parted her folds and teased her clit with his thumb as he slid two fingers back into her heat.

    Keke gasped, and blood pounded against her ears. The tension between her legs eased, and she sank down further around him. “I feel like I’ll burst.”

    “In a good way?”

    “Mmhmm.” She chewed her lower lip and raked her nails down Matt’s abdomen. They were both slicked up and slippery to the touch. “You feel so good, Matt.”

    “That’s my line,” Matt murmured. He held the top of her thigh with his free hand and raised his hips.

    Keke hadn’t realized how deep he was until her flank met his thighs. Her eyes rolled back, and a high-pitched moan tore from her throat. She could feel his fingers warring for space with his cock. Both of her entrances were soaking wet, pulsing around Matt in a demand for more.

    “God, Keke. I’ve wanted you for so long,” Matt said somewhere very far away. “You’re incredible.” He slowly rocked against her, drew away, and then returned.

    The lamp’s flame illuminated Keke’s hazy vision, painting yellows and oranges on Matt’s face and chest. A starving need in his eyes sent a new wave of goosebumps down her spine. She’d dreamed of sharing this with him for months. Being a part of him. She couldn’t speak. Each time he thrust into her, it elicited a staccato moan that stole her breath away.

    Sweat mingled with lube as they set a new rhythm together. Matt added another finger to her already stretching body, and Keke cried out in blissful surprise. He kept her dancing on the edge of her climax, and she felt dizzy with pleasure. As they moved together, she remapped every scar, every muscle, every valley of his body. Memorized the sighs and groans that she pulled from him. Until, at last, her building tension poured over.

    “Matt, I’m coming!” she squealed as her toes curled.

    He held tight to her thigh and thrust upward. Pleasure raced through her veins and exploded in her vision. Keke didn’t recognize the sounds that escaped her, nor could she control their volume. They echoed against the small room’s walls and grew louder when she felt Matt orgasm inside of her. His moans soon joined hers in a desire-drenched harmony.

    It was carnal and base and perfect. He was hers.

    Matt slowed while Keke drank in the last pulses of her climax. Her fingers and lips felt wonderfully numb, and the tips of her ears felt strangely cold. She giggled.

    “What?” A drunken smile spread across Matt’s lips.

    “I don’t know. I just… Everything feels so good.” She wriggled her hips and lifted herself free. “I’m really happy. That we could finally do that, I mean.”

    His smile widened. “Yeah, me too.”

    Keke rolled to Matt’s side and snuggled into his embrace. He cupped her cheek in one hand and kissed her. Keke swept her tail around his back and snaked her legs between his.

    It won’t be long, Matt. I’ll be back at your side before we both know it. I’ll be yours before you know it.

    Even if Keke didn’t completely believe her own silent promise, for now, as they lay in the lamplight and shared in each other’s warmth, it was enough.

    [​IMG]
     
  4. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    Side Quest: Wieszać Na Kimś Psy

    Janusz patrolled the borders of Sorentina with his bardiche resting on one shoulder. It’d been quiet enough for the last fortnight, but he wasn’t comfortable enough to stay in [Civilian Mode]. Not with the rumors of a dragon taking up residence near Anyona.

    “Master Janusz, it has been some time since we have traveled to Venicia. Should we not reconvene there?” His brunette cohort adjusted her glasses.

    “Pardon me for saying so, but I believe Anyona should be our next destination.”

    Would wars ever happen with manners like these? Janusz wondered for the thousandth time. At first, the polite demeanors and obsession with titles had crawled under his skin. If it wasn’t ‘Master’ it was ‘Lord.’ ‘Sir’ was rarely used despite being the one he was most comfortable with. He quickly learned that there was no stopping it and did his best to ignore them.

    “I think the sooner we take care of the dragon, the better.” Janusz readjusted the weapon on his arm. “We should have the Levels for it, yes?”

    “I do believe so, yes.” Celestia’s axe vanished from her hand. She laced her fingers together and bowed, her long twin tails dangling free from her shoulders. “However, I am concerned for the budding school and its recent intake of kittens.”

    “We made an appearance at the Vencian School of Etiquette a mere two weeks ago, Celestia. What of the kittens in Anyona?” Hanna insisted.

    Celestia straightened and adjusted her bracers. “I find it fascinating, Hanna, to hear you breach the topic of kittens. As your own runs wild in the streets.”

    Janusz shook his head. No. I’ve been wrong. This is how wars are begun. “Celestia,” he murmured her name in warning.

    Hanna’s eyes flickered with anger. “Ceres is allowed peaceful days as a kitten thanks to us. It is no sin to play pretend.”

    “Hmph. Time in Venicia would see to that—”

    “Ladies. Zamknij się!” Janusz barked. “That’s enough,” he added. As much as it seemed his language had been altered to suit Nyarlea, phrases from home still slipped out from time to time. “This began with the dragon. Let us speak of that, then.” He marched forward, continuing his patrol route.

    “Yes, master.” They bowed in unison and followed close behind, falling into perfect step like soldiers.

    “The Encroachers aren’t a challenge anymore, and we’ve done well enough with the Defiled.” He sketched a map of Shi Island in his mind while he spoke. “We haven’t seen to Leche or Catania in nearly a month, either. We can speak with both on our way to Anyona.”

    “Their missives speak of thriving in comfort, Master Janusz,” Celestia said. “I do not believe they need our assistance at this time.”

    Hanna shot Celestia an incredulous glare. “It is more than the Defiled that must be tended to. Did you, perchance, forget?”

    Celestia’s ears flattened against her head. “I would never speak above my station—”

    “Goddess above. If the school means so much to you, why not run it? I am certain we can find ourselves another suitable [Shaman],” Hanna snapped. Her tail swayed so quickly between her heels that it was nearly a blur.

    “I’m also certain we can find another [Celestrope] if you keep hanging dogs on her, Hanna,” Janusz said. What was with them today? They’d bickered before in the past—as did all women—but today they seemed to have their weapons ready at each other’s throats.

    “If I…?” Hanna covered her mouth with one hand, hiding the dimples in her cheeks as she grinned. She cleared her throat. “Yes. Of course, master.”

    They patrolled in silence for a time. Overhead, the sun was covered by a thick, gray overcast that hid away the sky. A slow drizzle of rain pattered against their armor, and the ground beneath their steps was muddy with it. Cold droplets vanished inside of Janusz’ dark mustache and beard, and he blinked them away from his lashes.

    Celestia broke their silence. “May I ask a question?”

    Janusz grunted his assent.

    “Do you think that we may spread ourselves too thin?” she asked.

    Spread ourselves? He chewed on the phrase for a moment, then gave up. “What does that mean? ‘Spread ourselves thin’?”

    “I believe what she is asking is if we try to do too much at once. But I would not want to assume.” A hint of ice tinted Hanna’s words.

    “Correct. I often wonder if we should use units of Sorentina’s [Magic Knight]s to station them around the island. To protect these smaller cities and villages in our stead,” Celestia continued.

    “Some do have guards. But that doesn’t mean we abandon our work,” Janusz replied.

    “I understand. It is simply that I have never known a man to maintain such arduous…patrols of the island. Especially during times of peace,” Celestia explained.

    Janusz knew that there wasn’t an easy way to explain his fixation on keeping Shi Island safe. He’d tried it once or twice, but the catgirls had never seemed to experience something like a world war. Back home, the outskirts of Olsztyn were made up of concrete factories and abandoned buildings. Janusz had seen photos of his father amongst the rubble from the invasions and the fear in people’s eyes when a bomb was mentioned.

    He would never let Shi Island reach that point. Not from the roaches, not from the Defiled, and not from the other islands.

    “The patrols bring me peace, then,” Janusz grumbled. She didn’t have to understand. She couldn’t. This was part of a man’s job. “Is Hanna right? Do you want to work in Venicia instead?”

    Celestia’s face turned a bright red. “Master Janusz, there is no greater honor than serving in a man’s Party—”

    Janusz held up a hand. “Celestia, forget what your good book says. If you want to go, then go.”

    “Our ‘good book’?” Hanna asked.

    “Bible. Scrolls. Tablets. Whatever Saoirse has for all of you,” Janusz said.

    “Ah. The decrees.” Hanna curled her blonde braid over her shoulder. She did that when she was thinking. “To push their words aside is difficult, as I am sure you can understand.”

    “She’s not here right now to say otherwise,” Janusz said. An urging in the back of his mind insisted that his words were blasphemous—he never would have said such a thing about God. But he wasn’t on Earth anymore.

    Celestia opened her mouth, then closed it again, rubbing her hands along her damp apron.

    “Think on it for the night, then. It’s time we find ourselves something to eat anyway.” Janusz shrugged and turned to head back into Sorentina.

    Hanna skipped alongside him, the ruffles on her black dress dancing around her knees in spite of the rain. “I shall cook if you like! My [Cooking] went up recently, and I am certain I am much improved!”

    Hanna was good at a lot of things. Fighting, healing, history, and carpentry, to name a few. But every time that woman picked up a knife, she created a culinary disaster. Even so, Janusz’s urging that she let Celestia cook had only spurred her on to keep trying.

    “Let me buy dinner tonight. Seems we all could use a break,” he said, eyeing a conflicted Celestia.

    “Yes. I believe that we could,” Celestia murmured.

    Another long silence blanketed the Party as they made their way back to Sorentina. Hanna idly picked through her Class cards, and Celestia’s gaze remained miles away. Janusz shrugged away the rain and stepped through the gates of Sorentina.

    A yellow blur raced across the street, followed closely by a kitten wearing a fine dress and mud all over her face.

    “Ceres! You— You bitch!” Winter, the muddy kitten, screamed as she ran past.

    Celestia snapped out of her daydream and favored Hanna with a knowing stare.

    Gówniarz,” Janusz growled.

    “Oh, Ceres,” Hanna murmured. She stepped forward, but Janusz barricaded her with one arm.

    “I’ll talk to her,” he said.

    “M-Master, you do not have to—”

    “No. It is time Ceres goes where she belongs.” He looked at Celestia. “Both of you.”

    Celestia lowered her eyes to the ground and bowed low. Without another word, she hurried home.

    Janusz nodded, then cracked his knuckles. “I’ll see you at home, Hanna.”

    If he couldn’t get a single kitten to behave, what chance did he stand against a dragon?

    [​IMG]
     
  5. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    A note from DoubleBlind:

    A huge thank you for an awesome reader's quick alert and flood of reports on a plagiarized EaC! Amazon book. It was taken down in under 12 hours. You guys are the best.

    ---​
    Chapter 248: The Red and the Black

    Lara had never slept in a more comfortable bed in all her life. The cushions were like puffy little clouds, the sheets softer than any cotton—they were made of silk, she was sure she heard Misha say—and the gentle whiff of cinnamon wafted through the air.

    How was anyone supposed to leave their bed?

    Tristan was already up and about, Destiny helping him dress. The fabric and fit resembled the attire Ravyn usually wore in her [Civilian Mode]. Long black cloth covered him from a high-collared neck down to his ankles. Red complemented the hems and accessories, intricately decorated with waves of black. Tristan held one panel of the black top against his left side while Destiny wrapped the second one to his right, then she carefully worked the sash behind him, tying and tucking the thick fabric into itself.

    “Wow,” Lara mumbled, blinking. “Where are you going?”

    “To speak with Emberlynn,” Tristan said, tucking his fingers under the collar. “It’s kind of tight.”

    “I think that’s by design,” Destiny said, frowning.

    “Why not get Misha or Dana to help?” Lara asked.

    Destiny shook her head. “They gave me explicit instructions, and I want to show them that Shi Island maids are not to be underestimated.”

    Service, Grace, Urgency. Lara wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to remove those three simple words from her brain. “But isn’t it better if he looks his best?”

    Destiny paused and shut her eyes. “Yes.”

    “Girl’s too scared of failure,” Fire said. “She needs to set aside her pride.”

    “You know from experience?” came Wind’s chiding voice.

    Lara threw her head under the pillow. It was much too early to be speaking with the Elements, let alone Fire and Wind. For as long as she could remember, the two could never agree on anything. It didn’t help that Wind seemed to enjoy provoking Fire.

    “What are you implying?” Fire growled.

    “I’m just saying, the bigger someone talks, the more frail their ego seems to be.” Wind giggled. “I’m sure it’s just an observation. Pay me no mind.”

    “Done.”

    At last, the Elements were silent. On most days, Lara could deal with their incessant bickering. Sometimes, she even had fun with it. But her time on San Island had proven to be much more stressful than she’d anticipated.

    Wind could never keep her attention on any one thing for very long. With the popularity of garnets in Emberlynn’s estate and their ability to exhibit heat and light, Fire was present for much longer periods of time than normal, and that meant more arguments between the two.

    Earth loved the palace that was Emberlynn’s home and could hardly go two minutes without making some sort of commentary on the luxurious designs. All of which he attributed to himself, of course.

    Lara retracted her head from underneath the pillow, wiggled to face Destiny and Tristan, then lay on her stomach, chin perched on a new pillow.

    “What stupidity,” Lara heard Wind say.

    Yes, it was much too early for this.

    Destiny drew back when she was done with the sash, cupping her chin and tapping at her cheek with a finger. She tapped her foot in rhythm with her finger—a subconscious habit of hers when she was thinking.

    Tristan stepped forward, then turned around slowly, his arms held wide at the sides. “How do I look?”

    “I think it’s okay,” Destiny whispered just loudly enough for Lara to hear.

    “What was that, Destiny?”

    Destiny shook her head. “The fabric is coiling a bit over here,” she said, stepping forward to straighten the section where it overlapped, “where it folds.”

    Lara smiled. Destiny waited on Tristan like a child at times. Such raw displays of affection would’ve been frowned upon at the school, but here, Destiny could be herself. It was a rare sight, and one Lara knew her sister needed dearly.

    “The girl is going to get herself in trouble,” Fire groaned.

    Wind suddenly appeared beside Lara, resting on her shoulder in the shape of a tiny woman. She bore large bug-like eyes, green skin, and an equally green dress that seemed like an extension of her small body. “She wears her heart on her sleeve. That’s the term, right? I heard Tristan say that before.”

    Lara nodded. “What do you mean, Wind?”

    Tristan and Destiny glanced at her, and she shook her head.

    “She loves him,” Wind said.

    Lara gasped, eliciting another glance from Destiny and Tristan. She shook her head again. “You’re certain?”

    “She didn’t say it outright, but have you looked at your sister lately?” Wind began to imitate exaggerated versions of human expressions. “The large eyes, the sweet voice, following him around like a small, lost animal.” She gasped. “And the touching! Look!”

    Destiny had Tristan’s hand clasped in both of hers. She smiled warmly at him and was saying something, but Wind and Fire were much too loud for Lara to hear.

    “She touches him so much!” Wind continued.

    “The men are a commodity,” Fire said. “Did you forget that?”

    “Oh, shut up, hothead. That’s more than just simple friendship! The girl’s enamored!”

    “She can’t be,” Lara said, blinking. The Elements didn’t understand Destiny like she did. This was just how she was. Tristan was a beacon of hope for her sister during their time at the school. Destiny’s whole face would light up whenever she spoke of him. Sure, it had intensified somewhat since they left Shi Island, but it was her duty as a maid to—

    “This is totally crazy,” Wind giggled. “What a daring girl.”

    “Lara, get dressed!” Tristan said excitedly. At some point, he and Destiny had finished. “I’d like to have you there.”

    “Why? I don’t know anything about business or money or…anything that San Island is suffering from,” Lara said, yawning. “Besides, I’m still so tired.”

    “Please?”

    Lara blinked. She couldn’t say no to him. Their roles as master and servant may have been dismantled, but the desire to be useful was still there. “Okay. Give me a few minutes.”

    Once Lara was ready, she, Tristan, and Destiny met Ravyn in the ballroom. They stopped a few feet away from her, Lara on Tristan’s left and Destiny to his right. Ravyn was observing tears in the rug, poking at the flaps of fabric with the tip of her shoe. They flopped over like wet leather, and the [Sorcerer] clicked her tongue.

    “Good morning,” Tristan said in his chipper voice. How he could manage that persona under these circumstances, Lara had no idea.

    “Morning,” Ravyn said bluntly, passing looks between Lara and Destiny. Bally swooped down and landed on top of Ravyn’s head. He tucked his beak beneath his wing and plucked a feather from his body. A crunch followed, and the bird let the feather fall from his beak, floating harmlessly to the floor. “Did the servants take care of you?”

    “Yes. They were exquisite with the level of service provided!” Destiny said with admiration in her tone.

    “Mm.” Ravyn stepped closer to Tristan and then adjusted the fabric beneath the sash. “It was a little crooked.”

    “Oh! Thanks, Ravyn,” Tristan said, smiling.

    “Are you feeling alright, Ravyn?” Destiny asked.

    “I’m fine. I just want to get this over with.”

    “Sister! Sister!” came a high-pitched squeal from the second floor. A sigh escaped Ravyn’s lips before she turned around to welcome her little sister. “I missed you!” Sophia threw her arms around Ravyn’s legs and nuzzled her cheek against them.

    How lovely, Lara thought, her cheeks burning slightly.

    “Missed you, too,” Ravyn said with a hint of reluctance. “Ravyn and her friends have to talk to Mommy about stuff, so can you wait here?”

    Sophia nodded, her smile wide and infectious. “Yes!”

    The two parted, and Ravyn motioned for Lara and the others to follow. Sophia waited as she was told, and the two climbed the stairs up to Emberlynn’s dining room. Ravyn drew a deep breath, then rapped her knuckle against the door.

    “I don’t think this is going to go over well,” Wind whispered. “Ravyn’s too angry at everything.”

    “How come?” Lara asked.

    “It’s complicated,” Fire said. “The woman’s fury is justified.”

    “Says you!” Wind combated. “She needs to get over it!”

    “We can’t all carry the whimsy of a child like you,” Fire growled.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “Do you need everything explained to you?”

    “Why, you petulant—”

    “Stop,” Lara whispered. “Please. I need to pay attention. Or try, at least.”

    Ravyn frowned at her, and Lara shrunk under her powerful gaze.

    “Come in,” a woman said from inside the room.

    Ravyn turned the knob and pushed the door open. She stood to one side, ushering Lara and the others inside, then shut the door behind them. The room was just as exquisite as the others, bearing red and gold with hints of black. Four plates of food had been placed on the table, two on each side. To their left was Emberlynn.

    She looked absolutely dreadful. Her skin was thin and pocked with abnormal spots and blemishes unbecoming of someone her age. Silky red and black garments clothed her in a modest fashion, and three decorated buttons clasped the collar together. Two long sticks kept her hair—of which was mostly gray, with hints of red—tied up into a bun, and her ears drooped to the sides.

    Exhaustion racked her features. Deep bags hung under her heavy-lidded eyes, and the woman still managed to carry an air of aristocracy; of command and control. Her hands crossed, she propped her elbows up on the table, then motioned with a slow nod of her head.

    “Please. Take a seat. I think business is best discussed during meals,” Emberlynn said. Her voice was smooth, delicate, yet somehow unnerving. It was not the tone of a gentle older woman but of a catgirl who commanded obedience. You would sit, and you would listen.

    Wanting to stay out of the way, Lara rounded the table—which was exceptionally long, nearly taking up the length of the room—and took one of the seats on the opposite end. Ravyn took the seat directly across from her while Tristan whispered something into Destiny’s ear before taking the chair beside Ravyn. Lara smiled as Destiny rounded the table next, and once all four of them were seated, Emberlynn spoke once more.

    “I hope the meals are to your satisfaction.” She retrieved a simple teacup of steaming liquid, then sipped at its edge before setting it back down. Another catgirl, whom Lara had just now noticed, stood beside Emberlynn with her hands behind her back and her eyes shut. She hadn’t said a word, but Lara imagined that she would be at Emberlynn’s beck and call at a moment’s notice. “If they are not, then do not refrain from speaking out. I will have it corrected.”

    “That won’t be necessary, Mother,” Ravyn said, plucking a fork from the table. “Can we discuss what we’re here for?”

    “Yes.” Her stare veered to Tristan. “I am told that the current economics of San Island are not to your liking.”

    Tristan shook his head. “That’s incorrect, Lady Emberlynn. I would never be so brash as to suggest such a thing. I simply see room for improvement, and so I have come at Cailu Raloquen’s request.”

    “Nice word choice,” Wind complimented.

    Lara blinked. “Wow.”

    Emberlynn displayed the faintest hint of a smile. “So you’re a follower, not a leader.” She exhaled through her nose.

    Tristan flinched.

    “Ouch,” Wind said.

    “What an incredible woman,” Fire chuckled.

    “Fine. Sakura?” Emberlynn said. The servant batted her eyes open and stepped closer to her master. “Leave us.”

    “Yes, Lady Emberlynn.” Sakura offered a curt nod, then strode across the room, disappearing into another room.

    When the door shut, Emberlynn continued. “Very well. Let’s take the gloves off and speak with honesty. If you would claim to do this better, then you’d best know what task you’re taking on.”

    Tristan’s back straightened, and he rested both hands clasped on the table. “Please. Enlighten me.”

    For the first time that day, Wind and Fire waited alongside Lara in perfect silence.

    [​IMG]
     
  6. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    A note from DoubleBlind:

    A huge thank you to my new Patron, King Dabba

    ---​
    Chapter 249: The Truth is Out There

    “Cannoli, we are here,” Sahzi’s gentle voice wove its way into Cannoli’s dreams. “Wake up, sweet child.”

    Cannoli blinked away her sleep to find Sahzi smiling across from her, holding the carriage curtain open. Remembering where she was, Cannoli shot to attention, straightening her back and squaring her shoulders. “I-I’m so sorry! I dozed off—”

    “No need to apologize. It was quite a long journey.” Sahzi shook her head, then gestured out the window. “Welcome to Falselle, Cannoli.”

    Cannoli leaned forward to peer outside the carriage window and was met with a blinding combination of sapphire and gold. Tall buildings painted in perfect white were covered with stunning stained glass windows framed by intricate golden filigree. Glimmering sapphires bedecked towering spires that soared high into the pure blue sky. Women in white robes, very much like Sahzi’s, were grouped together in prayer and travels. Three of their number wore masks alike to Saoirse’s, while many others had sapphires braided into their hair.

    “It’s so beautiful,” Cannoli murmured.

    “This is only the beginning, child,” Sahzi mused. “Your true walk with Saoirse begins today.”

    A dozen worries plagued Cannoli’s heart. Was she really fit to walk among the devout? Would she find the answers she sought? Could she really do this without her friends at her side?

    Sahzi placed a consoling hand on Cannoli’s shoulder. “It is normal to feel overwhelmed at first. We all did. You must trust in yourself and those that guide you along your path.”

    “Of course,” Cannoli whispered. She clenched her trembling hands into fists. “This is what I’ve wanted since I was a kitten.”

    “Then you will find yourself at home amongst your sisters here.” Sahzi squeezed her shoulders.

    Sisters… Keke… Cannoli shook her head and coiled her tail around her waist. “Where will I be staying, Sahzi?”

    “Your quarters will be within the main temple’s abbey alongside your fellow initiates.”

    The white horses drew the carriage around a massive fountain, where a statue of Saoirse herself stood at its center, holding a golden bowl that produced its own stream of crystalline water.

    “How many initiates are there?” Cannoli asked.

    “At this time, there are three more who recently arrived to study. The others within your cloister have varying degrees of knowledge.” Sahzi took one of her brunette braids in hand, then pointed to a string of sapphires woven inside the tendrils. “You, too, will earn your sapphires as you advance.”

    “I see.” It was hard not to enjoy the tiny stir of excitement in her stomach as Cannoli imagined her own strings of gems in her white hair. “What about the masks? Are those also earned?”

    “Those who wear Saoirse’s aspect are the masters among us, Cannoli. We are not to disturb them,” Sahzi cautioned. “We see them as the direct will of Saoirse—her prophets—as they have dedicated their lives to her service. If you are deemed worthy, you will apprentice to a prophet.”

    “They’re different from [Bishop]s, then?” Cannoli tried to recall if her mother had ever kept a mask like that. No, I’m sure I would remember.

    “Some may have obtained a Third Class, but it is not a requirement. The prophets have learned all there is to know about our goddess and committed it to heart. Her decrees, her hymns, her wills; they are the true emissaries of Saoirse, child. Unless Saoirse should will it, their lives are served in dedication to Falselle.” Sahzi leaned back in her seat and clasped her hands in her lap. “For many of them, the residents here have never seen their true faces. You must treat them as if you speak with Saoirse herself. Do you understand?”

    “Yes.” As Cannoli watched the prophets amongst the groups of white-robed women, she began to understand what Sahzi meant. One led the prayers amongst those with hands clasped to their chest. Another traveled alone, and passersby respected them with a bow and the proper hand gesture. The third had vanished while they spoke. “So, once I’m settled in, where do I go?”

    Sahzi’s warm smile returned. “It is good to meet one so eager. We will take breakfast together in the dining hall, and I will give you a formal tour of the temple.”

    Cannoli flicked her ears and frowned. “I thought you said my journey begins today?”

    “It does, my dear. From this moment on, your actions will be witnessed and judged by Saoirse and her prophets. To become a [Priest], you will need their approval.”

    Someone is watching me? Cannoli glanced at Sahzi from the corner of her eye. Sahzi’s eyes favored the initiate, never wavering to the grand city just outside their window. Oh. “Thank you, Sahzi.”

    “Whatever for?”

    “Your patience in helping me learn and for your understanding.” Cannoli’s gaze returned to the passing initiates and decadent buildings. “This is my first time away from my friends, and, well, I’m afraid to admit it, but I’m nervous.”

    “Of course, child. That is to be expected. We all must set aside our comforts to accept the goddess’s light. That is not an easy thing.”

    “No, it’s not,” Cannoli murmured. The carriage clattered along a cobblestone pathway before stopping at a walkway flanked by tall white columns. “But I’m ready.”

    “Excellent.” Sahzi nodded and opened the carriage door. “Then let us begin.”

    Sahzi led them inside the temple beneath magnificent archways. Inside was a wide entrance hall with towering ceilings—the arcade, Sahzi called it. A square pool of water with a statue of a crowned kitten playing at its head was built in the center, surrounded by tall green trees and flowering bushes sporting blooms of all colors.

    But the ceiling held Cannoli’s attention the longest. Detailed paintings of Saoirse’s acts of kindness and generosity spanned the length of the arcade. Passing out gifts on Cherishing Day, blessing the Seven Swords, and serving as a shimmering beacon for the Starbirth Celebration. The images were so lifelike and perfect, stirring warmth and admiration in Cannoli’s chest.

    “That’s amazing,” Cannoli marveled.

    “It is, isn’t it?” Sahzi joined her in peering up at the mural. “It was painted by just two artists long before our time.”

    “My goodness.” Tristan would love to see this. Cannoli pushed away the thought and refocused her attention on the rest of the arcade. It had two levels and two sets of spiral staircases at either end of the hall. More women in white robes moved on either side of the fountain, some carrying books, others carrying quiet conversations with one another. “My apologies, I was distracted.”

    “An easy thing when basking in Saoirse’s beauty. Do not worry, child. Now, the arcade leads to anywhere you need to go within the temple,” Sahzi explained, keeping her voice low. Despite the arcade’s size, the sound of the fountain overpowered the soft conversations happening within its walls. “Each doorway is labeled, so you needn’t worry about getting lost. You’ll find the way to your quarters in the abbey, the dining hall, the temple of worship, the library, and your studies from this room.”

    Cannoli nodded. Even if they were labeled, she wondered if a map would be a good idea. “Okay.”

    “This way to the abbey. Come along, child.” Sahzi lightly stepped to one of the staircases and began her ascent.

    Cannoli followed along behind her, realizing just how loud her footsteps were on the tile. Feeling very suddenly self-conscious, she slowed and tried to keep her weight on the balls of her feet. It didn’t seem to work. “How do you walk so quietly?” she whispered once she’d made it to the top of the stairs.

    “You will learn,” Sahzi assured her. “Very observant for you to notice. We must be gentle in all things.”

    “Even our footsteps?”

    “Yes. Each step is an appreciation to Saoirse, for she blessed the very ground we tread. We must show it reverence.”

    Cannoli nodded, determined to copy how Sahzi walked. She watched carefully and had just figured out how to lengthen her steps when they reached the door to the abbey. Sahzi watched her with mild amusement as they moved through the room of bunk beds and study corners.

    They stopped at a small alcove of two bunk beds, where three young women were just beginning to stir from slumber.

    “Ladies, your newest sister has arrived.” Sahzi clasped her hands together and rested them against her legs. “And might I add, you have slept past the sun, children.”

    All three shot from their bed sheets and rushed to the floor in their bare feet and matching nightgowns. They clasped their hands and bowed their heads in respect.

    “Sister Sahzi, please excuse us. Sister Frejya bid us take this morning to ourselves,” the young woman on the left said. She appeared to be around Cannoli’s age, with ivory skin and black and violet hair that was cropped up to her chin. The tail tucked between her legs matched the vivid streaks on her head.

    “A learning opportunity, then. What could you have done better with this time, my children?” Sahzi asked.

    “Studied Saoirse’s Decrees or memorized her hymns,” the one on the right squeaked. She was young and had an even smaller stature than Cannoli—side by side, the initiate would barely meet Cannoli’s shoulder. Her pink pigtails were tightly braided down her back, ending at her waist. She blinked wide green eyes up at Sahzi, and her blanched face nearly blended in with her nightgown.

    “Very good, Cora. What do you think, Muzhira?”

    Muzhira seemed to be the eldest—and tallest—of the three. She was positioned in the center, and she stared at Cannoli with piercing red eyes set inside a dark complexion. Her ebony hair was swung over one shoulder, and she stood at straight-backed attention like a soldier. “I think I know you,” she muttered in a low voice.

    Cannoli twitched with surprise and hissed in a slow breath. Muzhira looked so very much like Zahra. But beyond Sanrai, she couldn’t think of another person she’d met with such a similar appearance. “I-I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met.”

    “Muzhira, your lack of attention is noted,” Sahzi said.

    Muzhira bowed at the waist. “Forgive me, Sister Sahzi. My time this morning may have been better spent helping fellow initiates or praying for help on my path.”

    “Excellent answer, Muzhira. Now, if you would all prepare yourselves for the day, Cannoli and I would be honored if you joined us for breakfast.” Sahzi motioned to the empty bunk. “Cannoli, this will be your bed.”

    Cannoli nodded and offloaded the few items she’d brought with her into the small nightstand beside the bed. It seemed she’d be sleeping under Cora.

    “I’m Rozalyn, by the way,” the third girl introduced herself quietly as Cannoli waited for them to dress.

    “I’m Cannoli,” she replied brightly. “I’m sorry to wake you on your day of rest.”

    Rozalyn grinned. “As you heard, we should have been awake anyway.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “Gotta work harder for those sapphires.”

    Cannoli hummed her agreement as Rozalyn returned to dressing for the day.

    Sahzi waited until they were dressed, then called for them to follow. “Wonderful. Come along, now.”

    When Sahzi, Rozalyn, and Cora were a few steps ahead, Muzhira touched Cannoli’s wrist and leaned in to whisper in her ear. “I could never forget your face. You destroyed Rājadhānī.”

    Ice trickled through Cannoli’s veins. She looked to Muzhira, wide-eyed. “I-I—”

    Muzhira flashed a sharp smile. “Saoirse’s blessings be upon you, Cannoli.” Without another word, she marched forward to join the other initiates.

    Cannoli steeled herself and caught up to the group. She was being watched and tested. Whatever Muzhira believed, Cannoli would need to take it in stride.

    Saoirse protect me.

    [​IMG]
     
  7. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    Chapter 250: Kitten

    Ravyn furrowed her brow as she sipped her cup of tea. Gone was the kind and empathetic mother who wished only for her daughter’s safety and happiness. The businesswoman had arrived, and she was as cutthroat as they came. Bally hopped down onto the table to Ravyn’s right, and the [Sorcerer] braced for what would no doubt be one of the coldest conversations of her life.

    Emberlynn coughed into a handkerchief before continuing. “Let us proceed with introductions first. My name is Emberlynn of San Island, as my daughter has no doubt informed you. I am the owner of Emberlynn’s Fine Arts and Jewelry,” she said with her fingertips pressed lightly against her chest, “and mother to Ravyn of San Island and Sophia of San Island.”

    The mention of Sophia made Ravyn’s eye twitch.

    Tristan nodded when Emberlynn met his gaze. “My name is Tristan Erato. I am here on behalf of Cailu Raloquen, and I serve as Shi Island’s man. It is a pleasure to meet you, Emberlynn.”

    Emberlynn’s sharp gaze landed on the maids next, shifting between one and the other.

    Destiny fidgeted with her hands in her lap. “M-My name is Destiny… of Shi Island.” There seemed to be some hesitation in her tone. Ravyn tilted her gaze toward her, away from her mother, and raised her brows. The maid took a deep breath, then straightened her posture. “I have journeyed with Tristan to assist him. I came from the Venicia School of Etiquette, and am an experienced [Alchemist].”

    Emberlynn nodded, looking at Lara next.

    Lara blinked. “My name is Lara of Shi Island.” She shut her mouth, opened it, then shut it again. “I also came from the Venicia School of Etiquette. My specialty lies in conjuration magic.”

    Emberlynn raised a brow. “You are a [Conjurer], then?”

    “Yes! I am!”

    “Rare ones, you are. Do the Elements speak to you as they do with my daughter?”

    Ravyn nearly dropped her cup, tightening her grip just as it was slipping. Fucking what?

    Lara paused. “I… That is…”

    Emberlynn smiled, albeit barely. “Do not be alarmed, child. I know many [Conjurer]s pursue such a Class when they are able to hear the voices of the Elements. I am an [Arbiter]. I am no stranger to the mystique of magic. You need not be afraid to express your ability.”

    Lara looked beyond relieved. “Y-Yes! I can speak with the Elements! Wind and Fire are with me as we speak!” She clapped a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. I’ve begun to realize that I get strange looks whenever I say such things.”

    Emberlynn hummed. “Perhaps we could discuss whether you would be interested in tutoring my dear Sophia. We shall leave that until later, however.”

    Lara blinked. “Of course!”

    You have got to be fucking kidding me. They exist? No, that’s not right; it’s all speculation. Mother is just delusional from her sickness. There is no evidence that the Elements have any sort of willpower or consciousness.

    Ravyn cleared her throat. “Mother? Can we please continue?”

    Emberlynn’s sharp gaze returned. “Yes. Pardon my digression.” She adjusted her posture and placed her clasped hands on her lap. “Let us continue. You state you are here on a missive from Cailu Raloquen.”

    His name alone sent chills down Ravyn’s spine.

    “Yes, that is correct,” Tristan nodded. “He expressed concern with the conditions of San Island and wished to make better on his promise to take care of it. He fears that brute force alone will not suffice. Rather than simply protect, he wishes to provide future generations the means to not only survive, but to live.

    Ravyn suppressed the urge to whistle. The boy’s got a mind for diplomacy. I’ll give him that.

    Emberlynn narrowed her gaze slightly. Ravyn was intimately familiar with that expression. Now that she better knew her partners, it was time to dance.

    “An honorable notion, to be sure,” Emberlynn said. “For which areas does he find his presence does not suffice?”

    Careful, Tristan. She will trap you and put words in your mouth. Don’t play into her game.

    Ravyn had to be careful as well. Dancing with her mother when it came to business was dirty and calculating. If you couldn’t think a few steps ahead, then you’d already lost. She’d been unaware of how her mother felt in regard to San Island’s conditions, but the tone and word choice revealed that well enough. She’d need to keep her interactions polite and wait her turn to speak. Attempting to clarify anything Tristan said would paint him in a bad light, giving him the appearance that he was unable to speak for himself.

    Ravyn would offer her input when the time was right.

    Tristan kept his expression serious. “I would first ask you a question.” Emberlynn nodded her consent. “I had the privilege of seeing one of Melody’s record books. A woman from the Arch Tower. Do you know of her?”

    “Of course I do,” Emberlynn said with a hint of irritation.

    Ravyn took a sip of her tea. Damn it, boy. Of course she does. She knows everyone. Assume she knows unless stated otherwise. Part of her blamed herself for not giving Tristan a crash course on how to speak to Emberlynn. She wished desperately to link her mind to his somehow. To speak to him in a way Mother couldn’t detect. But she knew no magic that could perform such feats. Not that it mattered. Being a powerful [Arbiter], Emberlynn would know the instant she tried.

    “I should have expected as much,” Tristan said with a curt nod.

    Good recovery. Keep going. It’s your turn to talk, still.

    “Mister Raloquen expressed concern with the wellbeing of San Island’s children, primarily,” Tristan continued, clasping his hands and setting them on the table. “The record book I borrowed detailed concerning reports regarding nyannies and residences. As I am sure you’re familiar with Melody’s methods, I was hoping you could explain the situation.”

    “Why come to me? Why not ask Melody?” Emberlynn asked.

    “Ravyn mentioned you by name, expressing that we needed a master’s touch.” He glanced at Ravyn, and she offered him a subtle smile. “I would be remiss to assume any one person is responsible for an island’s shortcomings. I must simply stress that Cailu and I wish to see the island prosper even more than it already has.”

    She’s going to bring up the children next.

    “So, you and Cailu are in agreement that the kittens suffer under our management,” Emberlynn said. “A bold claim.”

    Push her. Push her. Ravyn’s grip tightened around her cup. Her heart pounded against her chest, and even Bally seemed a bit uncomfortable under the oppressive air of the conversation.

    “A true claim,” Tristan said firmly. “I apologize if I have overstepped. Zhuli seems like a beautiful place to live. Many of its residents have their own businesses, their own families, and want for little more. It is peaceful here, serene even. I may go so far as to say that it is a paradise.” Tristan smiled at Ravyn, then looked back at Emberlynn. “However, I fear you are not completely aware of the situation in Shulan. The kittens pickpocket from anyone who comes near. They’re dirty, and in dire need of food, clean water, and clothes.” He shook his head. “If not for Ravyn, my [Cat Pack] would’ve surely been stolen.”

    Emberlynn leaned into the palm of one hand, tapping her index finger against her cheek. “You do overstep your boundaries. You do not understand.”

    “Then help me understand. I see these kittens, and in them I see myself,” Tristan said with a pained expression. “Something needs to be done about it.”

    “If I may,” Destiny said with a hand held up. Emberlynn gestured for her to continue. “What Tristan says is true. Before my sister and I came to the Venicia School of Etiquette, we lived in Leche.”

    Emberlynn sat up, a curious look on her face. Ravyn watched carefully—anything that would reveal her mother’s cards.

    Destiny continued, “I am no stranger to the terrors of Nyarlea. The four of us have traveled to Ichi Island and seen the worst of it. Kittens and their mothers begging for coins, malnourished, desperate for water, and unable to leave due to the harsh desert beyond.” She shook her head. “It was enough to break my heart, and I see a similar issue in Shulan.”

    Good. She needs to hear it from another person who doesn’t live here, who doesn’t have a bias against her own island.

    “Please,” Lara said, “what must be done to help the children?”

    “Mother,” Ravyn at last said. “What if it was me in the streets? Or Sophia?”

    “To hypothesize such speculation is absurd,” Emberlynn growled. “That is not the circumstance here.”

    “Cailu has sired how many children at this point? He even sired my sister.” Ravyn’s fingers curled at the words. “I have traveled to each island, Mother. I have witnessed firsthand what they struggle with. How they get their food, how they survive, the dreams that are smashed against the stones. The kittens are our future. This situation you have is unsustainable. You know that.”

    “Do not speak to me of things you do not understand,” Emberlynn hissed.

    Don’t let your temper get the best of you, Ravyn reminded herself. “Then help us understand. One day, those children will be adults. I am sure we can all agree that we can’t have thieves still running the streets ten years from now.”

    An uncomfortable silence swept over them. Emberlynn leaned against the other arm, blinking. She drummed the fingers of her other hand against her decorated chair, her food barely touched. Seemed no one had the nerve to eat while—

    “Incredible food,” Lara said, carrying a piece of fish to her mouth. “Try it, sister!”

    Do you have no fucking ability to read the room?

    Destiny picked up her fork with a shaky hand, then delivered a piece of the same cut of fish to her mouth. Her expression brightened, and a light gasp escaped her lips. “Oh my goodness, you’re right!”

    I can’t believe this.

    To Ravyn’s surprise, Emberlynn smiled, gesturing for Tristan to take a bite next. The poor boy—or man, rather—had his hands clasped for so long that she had to imagine they’d picked up a significant amount of sweat. Unsurprisingly, Tristan wiped his hands on his pants beneath the table and reached for a helping of soft, sticky rice using his spoon.

    “Thank you,” Tristan said before taking a bite. “Oh wow.”

    “How is it?” Emberlynn asked.

    “I’ve never had such amazing rice. My compliments to the chef.”

    “Yukari will be delighted to hear that.”

    Somehow, Lara had penetrated the thick air around them with ease. Once she, Destiny, and Tristan dug in, Ravyn suddenly felt the pangs of hunger and gave in. Emberlynn joined in moments later, and the conversation became more lively, more lighthearted. Emberlynn laughed at Ravyn’s expense, and she fought hard to hide her burning cheeks.

    “She’s always been like that,” Emberlynn giggled. “‘Fuck this,’ ‘fuck that,’ ‘fuck you.’ Goodness, the words that come out of her mouth. You can barely tell I ever raised her!”

    Tristan and his Party laughed as Ravyn hid her face. Talk about a tonal shift.

    “She kind of scared me when I first met her,” Destiny said. “She poisoned me and my sister.”

    Saoirse’s tits, why did you have to say that?

    “I-I didn’t poison you!” Ravyn exclaimed. “I, we…had shit to do.” She clapped a hand to her mouth, and she shrank beneath her mother’s judgmental gaze.

    “It’s fine,” Emberlynn snickered. “It doesn’t matter. Just be you. That’s all a mother could want.”

    Ravyn frowned. “You mean it?”

    “Don’t I? I have missed you for so long, my daughter.” She raised her cup of tea, her smile growing wider. “It feels wonderful to have you in the home again.”

    “Y-Yeah,” she groaned.

    “Which reminds me.” She set her cup down, glancing between her and Tristan. “Now that I know you’re alive, maybe I’ll live long enough to be a grandmother.”

    “No, no, no, no, no,” Ravyn said, shaking her head. She could barely look at Tristan. “Not with him. Uh, no offense.”

    Tristan spurted. “None taken.”

    “I take it that means you have someone in mind?” Emberlynn asked.

    Ravyn started, and images of Matt came to mind. She missed his laugh, his snarky attitude about everything, his combative personality. Still, he had a heart of gold, and his actions spoke louder than his words. Of any man she’d met, she had no doubt he could accomplish anything if he set his mind to it. The memory of their night together crept in at the seams…

    No!

    “None,” Ravyn said, smiling wide. “Not…yet, that is.”

    Emberlynn scoffed. “If you say so.” She set her cup down, looking at Tristan. “As much as I am enjoying this lovely conversation, I think it would be best if we discussed why you came here. You came here for a master’s touch. To solve the issues of San Island, you will need it.”

    “Then…you are willing to review how kittens are treated? In Shulan especially?” Tristan asked.

    “I am. But do not mistake our prior conversation for play. If the issues run as deeply as you say, then this is not something we can solve overnight.”

    “I am open to any suggestions you have.”

    Emberlynn’s business face returned. “Good. Listen, and listen well. You are not going to like what you hear.”

    Ravyn set her cup down, her plate half-finished. The dance would continue.

    I hope you can pull it off, Tristan.

    [​IMG]
     
  8. DoubleBlind

    DoubleBlind Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2021
    Messages:
    150
    Likes Received:
    9
    Reading List:
    Link
    Chapter 251: A Chill Goes Through Her Veins

    With Cannoli gone, Matt, Ceres, and Keke shared their own carriage, which left Zahra alone with Kirti and Cailu.

    Kirti favored Zahra with her haunting orange stare, a permanent smirk affixed to her face. She juggled three colored rocks between her fingers. Somehow, their clicking together was worse than the silence.

    For the hundredth time in their travels, Zahra wondered if she’d made a mistake. How could she possibly fill Naeemah’s shoes when Kirti so easily slid beneath her skin? She missed Tristan’s Party and their warm conversations. Cailu and Kirti felt so beyond her reach, both in Level and in knowledge. Zahra had never ventured from Ichi Island, which limited her greatly.

    I wish I could return home.

    But that would mean failing Queen Naeemah. Zahra would rather die than fail her.

    “Our last few days of traveling have felt so cold,” Kirti mused. “What happened to building trust, Zahra?”

    Zahra looked out the carriage window, searching for something she could concentrate on that wasn’t the [Witch Doctor]. Unfortunately, the road outside of Irisil was a sea of grass. Not a tree or a mountain or much of anything beyond the occasional rock or weed.

    Kirti sighed. “And here I thought Benzi would bring us closer together.”

    Zahra had avoided Kirti since playing her conceptual card game. After just a few plays, Kirti made it clear that she was looking for more than just a way to pass the time. “The questions you ask are…” She paused, searching for the right word.

    “Dangerous?” Kirti supplied.

    Zahra stole a glance from the corner of her eye. Kirti’s smile had widened.

    “Did you find my questions dangerous, Cailu?” Kirti asked.

    “That would depend on who you ask,” Cailu murmured into his hand. He had taken to staring out the window on his side, idly listening to the conversation. Zahra wondered why he was so quiet but her nerves wouldn’t allow her to question him. “I do not believe that Saoirse’s [Acolyte]s would find your quandaries appropriate.”

    Finding herself unsettled by Cailu’s reply, Zahra turned and appealed to Cailu. “Asking where the Defiled come from? If Saoirse truly exists? If trapping souls into your stones would alter the fate of the world? That’s blasphemous!” Her voice sounded more desperate than she’d intended, like a kitten arguing with her mother. “E-excuse me, I’ve spoken out of turn.”

    “No, Zahra. Please, continue.” Kirti collected the trio of stones in her palm and curled them into a fist. “It seems you have forgotten our conversation about my research.”

    Zahra squirmed. On the boat. Kirti herself had said the books she read were marked as blasphemous. But to hear her force the questions out loud and attempt to tease the answers from Cailu—Kirti went against everything Zahra was taught.

    Cailu slightly shifted his position to watch them, and Kirti’s eyes never left Zahra’s face. It was an intense scrutiny from both parties that Zahra had never experienced before.

    She cleared her throat. “My mother told me that many catgirls are punished and rehabilitated for less. My father believed that questioning the world’s deepest secrets was to question the creator itself.”

    “You knew your father?” Cailu asked.

    Zahra flushed. “No. But Krethik’s teachings were passed on in my family.”

    “Not to your sister,” Kirti said.

    The mention of Sanrai twisted knots inside Zahra’s stomach and chest. Despite all that had happened and the time separating her from Sanrai’s death, it still felt surreal. Like at any moment, Sanrai would be there, telling Zahra how disappointed she was. “You have mentioned Sanrai on multiple occasions now. How do you know so much about her?”

    “I told you, child. Do not ask questions that you don’t want the answers to,” Kirti said, narrowing her gaze.

    “I want the answer!” Zahra snapped. Her hands trembled at her sides. When had they balled into fists? For days on end, she’d forced herself to stay neutral. Carefully hide her emotions and expressions as Naeemah did.

    But she wasn’t Naeemah. That much was clear.

    “Answer her, Kirti,” Cailu said.

    “I am neither your familiar nor your pet, Cailu. Do not order me like a beast come to heel.” An angry fire flickered in Kirti’s eyes.

    “You avoid the topic, then.” Cailu shook his head. “I thought it was I who spoke in circles?”

    For the first time since joining their Party, Kirti looked uncomfortable. Zahra blinked; the slight squirm and droop of Kirti’s shoulders looked out of place on her confident form. Zahra’s tangled stomach loosened, and the first pricks of unease cooled her frustration. What if Kirti was trying to protect her?

    Kirti unfurled her fingers and studied the stones in her hand. With a long sigh, she tucked them into her [Cat Pack] and folded her hands into her lap.

    “When you deal in the business of souls, you learn to read them.” Kirti measured her words, and her knowing posture returned. “Everyone’s soul has etchings from their journey of existence. These etchings may be written into us by others—” she looked directly at Cailu, “—like a wife or daughter, for example.”

    Cailu’s features darkened. Zahra’s heart skipped, and her breath caught. It was as if winter had swept into their carriage. She didn’t know what a wife was and was too afraid to ask.

    “You think to punish me, witch?” Cailu growled.

    Kirti held his glare without so much as flinching. “I only do as you ask.”

    “Mention either of them again, Kirti, and I assure you my blade will etch its memory into your flesh.” Cailu’s voice was cold and furious.

    Zahra shivered. She knew she had to say something. Anything. “Sanrai, then, she’s etched into me?”

    “Yes.” Kirti didn’t break her stare with Cailu.

    “Do you have anyone that’s etched onto you, Kirti?” Zahra continued.

    “All those I’ve interacted with. As we all do.”

    “Well, some interactions are more meaningful than others, correct? Like a sister or a mother?” Zahra was reaching. As much as Kirti frustrated and terrified her, she didn’t want Cailu to cut the woman down. It would feel as if she’d failed Naeemah. “Surely more important people leave bigger marks?”

    “An interesting assumption.” Kirti relaxed back into her seat. Cailu didn’t move. “‘Bigger’ is not the term I would use. They are…different. But you have the right of it.”

    “So, who was different for you?” Zahra repeated.

    A tiny smile returned to Kirti’s lips. “What a roundabout way to question my history.”

    Zahra waited to see if the tiniest sign of forgiveness would come from Cailu. When he still remained a statue, she continued, “Listen, I wish to trust you. I wish to think your research is for the betterment of Nyarlea. But you know so much about us, and we know so little about you.”

    Kirti looked between her and Cailu, then crossed her arms and let her eyes slide to the window. It was a long time before she said anything. “I share a similar mark to Cailu. An etching I recognized immediately.”

    “Oh? Please, enlighten us,” Cailu said.

    Kirti stared far outside the window—beyond the rocks and weeds and miles of grass. “I lost my daughter to the Defiled.” Her hollow tone reverberated in Zahra’s bones.

    Cailu’s façade cracked, and his hands relaxed. “My apologies, Kirti. It’s an unfortunate reality for many in Nyarlea.”

    “Perhaps,” Kirti murmured. “Tell me, do pity and sympathy garner trust?”

    “No. But I think understanding can,” Zahra replied softly. “Loss is something we share. It could help us fight on a more united front.”

    “Vengeance does not grant peace,” Cailu said as he leaned back.

    “Not for vengeance. I meant for… well…” Zahra stumbled, unable to find the right words to say. “Never mind.”

    “For Growth,” Kirti supplied. “You’re better at Benzi than you think.”

    Silence fell over them again, though warmth had blessedly returned to the carriage. Zahra pulled her long hair over her shoulder and joined Kirti in watching the land pass them by.

    Maybe this journey wasn’t wasteful after all.

    [​IMG]