Valanice, Queen of Daventry and wife of the great King Graham, was resting on a white bench in the gardens within the walls of her castle. Nearly two months had passed since her son, Alexander, has departed on a quest to seek out the mysterious, black haired maiden that he had encountered such a short time ago. Too long for him, though, Valanice thought. Just as Graham has left his homeland to seek her out, now her own son was risking his life in a search for his love, true or otherwise.
And did that maiden (Cassima, as Valanice recalled) know that Alexander was pining for her? The queen had known herself, through some strange, inexplicable phenomena that her imprisonment within that ominous crystal tower was not permanent, and the one she would spend the rest of her days beside would come to save her. Just like the stories of her childhood that her parents read and reread to her beneath the Kolyman sunbeams.
She turned her turquoise eyes upon a sprig of lilies growing by her bench. Alexander had repeatedly compared Cassima to their purity and beauty, but Valanice had never mentioned to him that lilies actually bore a deadly poison within them that was unknown to anyone until they felt the pain of the truth coarse through their blood until they recovered. She prayed that this maiden her son was searching for did not harbor a similar deadliness within her. Still…he had never been smitten with any of the girls in Daventry, no matter how lovely they were, and his judgment had always been good, even in the short time he and his family had been reunited after nearly eighteen long years. Valanice strained to forget the years of pain she had endured, holding on to the slim faith that her son was not dead and would someday return…it had worked once, and there was no reason why her hope should wane again, no matter how hard the odds were against her.
She snapped the stem of one of the lilies and held it to her face, breathing in the sweet aroma while tracing the veins in the white petals as they wound their way into the center. There was no sound but the sound of her breath leaving and returning and the hissing rustle of the leaves of the oak trees.
But then she heard something else. At first she assumed it was her own breath, but there was something different about this new sound that whispered in her ears. She lowered the flower and scanned the garden, searching for the source of the strange, raspy noise. It sounded strangely familiar, but she could not bring herself to believing what could be making such a foreign, but teasingly familiar emission.
Then she stopped trying to avoid her self-admonishments and had a revelation about the sound. It was a cat. The sound a cat made as it slept. There were many stray cats in the nearby towns and villages, and when she and Graham visited those locations for one reason or another, she would always stroke the cats as they rubbed against her. Some would even allow her to pick them up and pet them until they fell asleep in her arms, making that same, delicate, rattling noise. Graham would often call her a charmer of beasts, and she would laugh and agree, but she remembered how witches always had cats as their companions, and she often wondered if she had possibly “inherited” any dark magic from one of her friends from Kolyma. Amaranth. She was a white witch, but there was something about her that made the hairs on her arms prickle, as if from cold that wasn’t there.
But as loud as her growing thoughts were becoming, the purring was still there. Valanice rose and left the lily on the bench, scanning the land in an attempt to locate the source of the purring. She followed it in the direction she assumed it was coming from, then, realizing it wasn’t coming from that way after all, turned and walked another path, past the red rose bushes, past the yellow ones, the white ones, and finally out one of the several white gates that led out of the garden and into the surrounding countryside.
The sun was seeping through the thick branches and leaves overhead, creating blurred patches of light that splattered the otherwise shadowed meadows. Valanice could still make out the blue of the sky, which contrasted dramatically with the rusty red tree trunks, and she felt a sudden calmness creep over her psyche as she passed through the circles and ellipses of light. The wind moved the leaves overhead, causing the golden rings to sway like whitecaps on the seas of her homeland.
But then she noticed something odd. During the last gust of wind that swayed the spots of light, one of them hadn’t moved. It had remained as stationary as a stone. It was beneath one of the largest of the trees. As she examined the spot more closely, she realized that it wasn’t mere light at all. It was a living creature, and it was the source of the purring.
Valanice crept closer to it, placing the toes of her feet down first, a technique that she had spent most of her youth perfecting. The creature, she noticed, was not all gold, but rather, speckled with black dots, like the wild felines that she had heard stories of from travelers that stopped by Castle Daventry. In fact, it was a feline. Its long tail, which ended with two black rings and a white tip, was wrapped around its body like a squirrel’s, and occasionally twitched nervously. Two dark lines ran from the inner corners of its closed eyes to the corners of its mouth, resembling the lines that tears would travel along.
But this beast was as large as a human, and not only that, but it was wearing a green tunic and nearly black trousers as well. It even had hair like a human’s, nearly as long as Graham’s, but gold, the same gold as the spots of sunlight around it. It wasn’t like her daughter’s at all. It was much paler and scruffy. Its hands and shoeless feet were also human, as were its legs, arms and torso. It was like a man in cat’s clothing. Valanice stared at it, amazed but also frightened.
But now that she was right beside it, the purring didn’t seem so loud at all, in fact, she could barely hear it. Had her ears deceived her? How else could such a quiet sound travel so far and be heard so loud?
As if it had overheard her very thoughts, the animal’s breathing stopped, cut short as if by force. It opened its eyes slowly. At first Valanice thought either it or her would bolt and run away, but both figures remained where they were. The cat yawned and shook its downy locks of hair and examined Valanice out of its hazel eyes, then smiled. But it wasn’t the vicious smile of a predator ready to pounce and kill. It was a smug, self-assured smirk that she had seen on Graham’s face many times in the years she had spent with him. The creature then opened its mouth and spoke.
“Good day, Queen Valanice. You are just the way I imagined you would be.”