While Narcissa’s house wasn’t even close to being one of the largest in the city, beyond the formal room they’d first seen it was substantial and filled with the beautiful and comfortable things Kaveri was coming to associate with the princess.
The main door opened directly onto a rectangular courtyard of flat paving stones, filled with plants and even small trees in immense painted pots, and surprisingly comfortable furniture that seemed to be made out of basketwork with cushions. Around that were storerooms, the kitchen, the room they’d been in, a private bathing room, and bedrooms for the housekeeper, cook, two housemaids, and the bodyguards. The second floor had, primarily, a large day room and bedrooms for Narcissa, Evander, Narcissa’s handmaid Iole, and guests—two of which now belonged to Narcissa’s new bodyguards.
The roof was flat and readily accessible. The long west arm had a stone wall on the outer side and the end facing the street, and a slanted roof, though the inner face and other end were open: Evander said the previous owner had been a merchant who needed the storage space, but Kaveri thought the option of shade would be pleasant. The long east arm and the short north side linking them were open to the darkening sky; a wooden trellis with vines growing up it from pots along the base provided welcome privacy from neighbours. There was more of that wicker furniture up here, too.
They waited on the roof for moonrise: four foreigners and the princess who was now like them and her loyal cousin who had refused to simply go to bed and leave her.
Talir first, of course, half full and waxing, and Tyrel smiled and cupped a hand to drink the yellow light like water; the cousins watched in fascination.
Bright silvery-blue Meyar followed her.
Madoc sighed deeply in intense relief as Sanur’s first rays washed over him, easing the pain. Though she was waning, she was only a few days past full. At least it didn’t take much time or effort when he fixed his gaze on her and changed to bobcat.
The arrow, along with the parts of his clothes not woven of moonlight, clattered to the roof below him. In his bobcat form, there was no trace of the gaping wounds at all. Madoc bounded around the roof happily, revelling in having made it to the end of his ordeal. Tyrel changed to fox to play tag with him, the two of them racing around and dodging the others, sometimes with little room to spare.
Narcissa and Evander watched the transformation and then the game, neither of them showing a great deal of expression to give Kaveri any hint of what they were feeling, but they were certainly paying close attention. Those two, she thought, were too used to controlling reactions and keeping things to themselves.
Mirren unwrapped the bandages from around her hand, flexed it experimentally, and nodded in satisfaction. Though Madoc’s example was dramatic evidence enough, she held up her hand and turned it to show that it was intact. “Small things, big things. No matter what it is, they fix it. As long as you can stay alive until moonrise.”
“That looks useful,” Evander said. “Especially if you make a habit of rescuing strangers.”
“What a fascinating cat,” Narcissa said. “A little like the ones in the highlands north of here, but they’re more grey with shorter legs and larger paws. And I’ve never seen a fox with such striking colouring.”
Mirren chuckled. “Some of us blend in almost anywhere, instead.” She changed and bounded over to leap into Narcissa’s lap. Narcissa started, then smiled as Mirren turned in circles a couple of times and settled down purring.
“There’s much to be said for subtlety. I think it’s the world’s good fortune if cats with fur like rippled silk are a common sight.”
“You can pet her,” Kaveri said. “It’s amazing how often she ends up in a friend’s lap wanting that, really.”
Mirren just gave her a slow blink, the end of her tail flicking once. She arched into Narcissa’s stroking hand, the princess cautious at first, then less so.
“Lirit’s the last to rise,” Kaveri observed philosophically to Narcissa, “but she’s also the last to set. And while there are fewer full moons, there are also fewer dark moons. It all balances out. If all were full and dark together, we wouldn’t be able to help each other through the dark times, and if the cycles were all the same length, we wouldn’t have some nights when they’re all bright.”
“Enodia has a festival, when all five moons are full,” Narcissa said. “Nearly twelve years, I think. I must admit, I’ve never thought much about it. It’s well-known but not one of the most universally celebrated.”
While waning aquamarine Sahen nudged up into sight, Kaveri told her about Valeyan’s domain and the bargain they’d made so they could always find each other.
“That sounds like a sensible arrangement, although possibly choosing to die would be difficult for some of us.”
“The first time you die is terrifying,” Kaveri admitted. “Like falling out of control. After Lirit catches you a few times, it’s much less so. It’s easier each time to trust her to be there. Somehow we keep getting into trouble, even when we try not to, and knowing that we won’t really die, we do tend to put ourselves between others and danger more often than we otherwise might.” She turned towards the east, and smiled. “There’s Lirit, just over the horizon. She’ll be in sight very soon. Mirren?”
Mirren yawned and reluctantly stood up, only to jump over to Evander’s lap instead. He made a sound that was almost a squeak, eyes wide, and stayed very still while she made herself comfortable.
“Pet her,” Kaveri repeated. “How can there be any impropriety in it? Right now, she’s a cat.”
Slowly, Evander smiled. “That, I can do.” He ran a hand along Mirren’s back, so the striped fur shimmered in Sanur’s light, and then delicately sought out the sensitive place under her chin.
Judging by Mirren’s escalating purr as Evander grew more confident, he must have a touch she liked.
Kaveri stretched towards her mother happily, as the violet moon’s light spilled over the vine-laced lattice. With Lirit waxing towards full the same night as Talir, and under Enodia’s clear skies, there was an abundance of light. “I think you’ll find you don’t need that bandage any longer.”
Cautiously, Narcissa unfastened the lacing at the shoulder of her simple dress, and tentatively eased the bandage away from her skin.
Nothing interfered; it came away cleanly from the unmarked skin beneath.
“It should be long enough,” Kaveri said. “Look at Lirit. Ask her to change you. It feels strange, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. She’ll always be just as happy to change you back. And she’s near enough to full to make it easy.” She stood up from her chair, stripped herself to the skin—her dress was moonspun, but Narcissa’s wasn’t, and she wanted the princess not to feel singled out more than necessary—and demonstrated.
“What an interesting animal,” Narcissa said, distracted. “Such markings, too. We have nothing similar locally.”
Kaveri changed back to human. “It’s called a raccoon, they’re very common in some areas. Just ask Lirit, and we’ll see what you are. So far, they’ve done a very good job of giving us other forms that are appropriate to us.”
“Hm.” Narcissa reached sideways to clasp Evander’s hand tightly for a moment—more nervous than she was letting on?
“You might want to take off the clothes,” Kaveri added. “Otherwise you’ll change inside of them. If you’re anything large, you’ll damage them. Madoc and Tyrel aren’t paying attention, but I can tell them to look away if you want.”
Actually, they were probably much more aware of everything going on than they were letting on, under the circumstances, but why point that out?
Narcissa shook her head silently, unlaced the other shoulder of her dress, and let it slither off entirely as she rose to her feet.
Narcissa did have a nicely toned body, Kaveri observed, and she’d been right about the pleasant curves.
Then the princess looked at Lirit.
For a very long moment, nothing happened. Narcissa stayed absolutely still, the violet light a halo around her.
Evander, watching her with creases across his forehead, gave Kaveri a worried look.
“It’s all right,” Kaveri said softly. “It’s… exhilarating, almost intoxicating. That never really changes, but it does get easier to trust that it will still be there when you have time to lose yourself in it. We’ve all had the same experience of feeling welcomed and immediately loved. Let her enjoy it. It really does help make everything less frightening to get used to.”
Silently, Evander nodded. Mirren shifted her position on his lap so she could more easily see Narcissa; Kaveri wondered whether having her there to pet was calming Evander as much as she suspected. She had no doubt at all that was Mirren’s intention.
Around Narcissa, violet light shifted and shimmered and flowed. Hair pins and earrings clattered in a metallic shower to the roof. When the light stabilized, an animal around Mirren’s size crouched in the midst of the gold. The long ears were the most obvious clue; the grizzled-grey fur with reddish-brown highlights on her flanks, and the black tips on those ears, were less so. But even in that uneasy low crouch on the flat roof, the length of those limbs was obvious, and that short tufted tail.
“A hare for an herbalist? That makes as much sense as the rest, I suppose.”
Mirren stood up and stretched, with care not to claw Evander, before jumping lightly down. She padded over to give the new hare a gentle nuzzle and a few reassuring licks on her forehead, then trotted a few lengths away and paused to look back invitingly. They were, Kaveri thought, fairly close to the same size, if built quite differently.
Hesitantly, the Narcissa-hare took a step with one forepaw, then the other, puzzling out how to do this.
“I think,” Kaveri said, “hares often use both front paws together, or nearly so, and both back paws together.”
Narcissa’s ears twitched, and she tried that. Coordinating the motions seemed to be tricky, leaving the result awkward and not very effective. In a less sheltered environment, she’d be no effort at all for a predator to catch.
Kaveri wondered how that was going to complicate things. So far, she herself was an omnivorous opportunist and the rest were all predators; a single prey animal within the mix was probably going to have an impact on dynamics. If nothing else, how would Narcissa feel about hunting hares and rabbits for food between settlements?
On the other hand, the more she thought about it, the more logical it was for an herbalist to be an herbivore. And a hare was going to be able to outrun just about anything, once she was used to her own form. And the various predatory species didn’t exactly co-exist peacefully in the wild.
“Try not to think about it,” Kaveri said. “Your body knows how to move already. Relax and don’t try too hard.”
Narcissa looked up, far far up from her perspective. Her ears were down flat, and Kaveri wasn’t sure whether to read that as a good sign or not, since she wasn’t familiar with the relevant body-language. It seemed unlikely to be positive.
Kaveri figured she did her best, but Narcissa was clearly someone who spent a lot of time thinking about things: letting instinct take over didn’t come naturally, which made it a struggle to stop getting in her own way.
Madoc changed back to human and sat down to talk to Evander. Tyrel joined them. Madoc had to be at least twice Narcissa’s size, probably more, and Tyrel, like Kaveri, larger if less so, so Kaveri figured they were deliberately trying to make certain she didn’t feel hunted. Besides, someone needed to be available for Evander, too.
Kaveri wavered, but decided that her raccoon form shouldn’t be intimidating, and changed to help the princess learn about being, or at least moving as, a hare. Narcissa persisted, and each new bit of ground gained came quicker than the last as she worked this out. She progressed from hopping with some hesitancy to racing from one end to the other down the length of the roof and turning around to pass Mirren still coming the other way. Kaveri didn’t even bother to try.
“Talir will set soon,” Tyrel said, startling Kaveri—had that much time passed? They’d been keeping busy: white fabric that was probably tunics, and a liberal tangle of green cord, had been draped over the nearest table. A good idea, it being unlikely there’d be anything around to fit. Mirren would be able to tolerate something Madoc made for a day or so, but Kaveri would have to do her own or it would be annoying and distracting.
Mirren gave Narcissa a final cheek-rub and changed back to human.
“Possibly Kieran could keep up with you,” Mirren laughed. “The rest of us never will.”
Kaveri changed, too. “Kieran, only in Talir’s light,” she amended. “Or for a short distance. All else being equal, I believe a hare can maintain that speed for longer.”
Evander slid gracefully off his chair to sit on the roof, legs crossed; Narcissa hopped over to him and, a bit clumsily, climbed into his lap, his hands steadying her. After a brief bit of experimentation, she arranged herself comfortably, his arm around her protectively while he stroked her fur with his other hand.
The other four traded glances and did a quiet retreat farther down the roof, leaving them alone.
(chapter continued next post!)