The morning before the fall equinox is dark and cold. I lay awake, but reluctant to leave the warm protection of the blankets. The sound of my phone vibrating on the wooden surface of my dresser finally coaxes me out of bed. My bleary eyes take a moment to process the name on the display.
“Hunter? Is something wrong?” I try to think of a reason he might call. And so early in the morning. I begin filing through the names of people who could be hurt. Caelen, Grant, Brie. Would he contact me if something had happened to them?
“No, everything is okay. I’m sorry for calling so early, but there’s something I need to do and I was wondering if you could help me.”
I can’t imagine what kind of job he could need me for, especially while Mirena is watching my every move. Something to do with Yagher?
“What is it?”
“Well, before I can approach Merlin House I need to have a fair amount of people standing behind me. People who are willing to speak out against secrecy and the existence of the Limitation Stone. I’ve created a bit of a network already, but we’re always trying to approach people that might be sympathetic to our ideals. I’ve been contacted about meeting with an individual who may help us. You don’t have to say yes, but I think it might be best if you meet with them,” he is confident but not authoritative – I feel comfortable declining. Which is great because I see a glaring problem with this plan.
“Wouldn’t I be putting them at risk? If Mirena’s spying on me she’ll immediately assume they’re involved with you…”
There is a throaty and mischievous laugh before he says, “That’s exactly why I think you’re the best fit for this meeting. The interested party is Seimei’s corvid handler. She’s the one responsible for the crows that have been tailing you.”
“It could be a trap,” I remind him, “to lure you out. Find out who you’re working with.”
“Could be. But if we send you they don’t find out anything they didn’t already know. It’s unlikely Mirena will attack you, but Caelen will be nearby and warn you if something seems wrong. I’ll keep another of my contacts near the meeting place as well, in case you need assistance.”
My fear and desire to help grapple with each other until he says in his warm, gentle voice: “You absolutely do not have to do this. I will figure out something else if I have to. I hate putting you at risk any more than I already have, but it wouldn’t have been fair of me to make the decision for you. Especially when it involves getting to see the eyes that have been following you these past couple weeks.”
He’s right – not offering me this task would be condescending. It would tell me that he doesn’t trust me enough to weigh the dangers for myself. It would take away my agency, like Yagher and his father did when they wiped my memory three years ago.
“I’ll do it. You’re right – I would like to meet these eyes.” I hesitate, suddenly anxious, “But what do I say? I mean I have to convince her, don’t I? What if she’s not convinced, doesn’t that risk the safety of your entire network?”
“I’ll text you what you need to tell her, but I’m sure you’ll do fine. Just be honest without disclosing too much personal information about any of us. If she chooses to sell us out, no one will learn much more than our intention – something they’re going to find out eventually anyway. They won’t know who else is involved or where to find us.” The weight of his trust falls heavily, though not uncomfortably, on my unprepared shoulders.
“Alright. When do I meet her?”
“Well, the family is celebrating the Equinox tomorrow and it may be a week or so until she can get away after that. Unless you are available this afternoon?”
I glance at the clock to see it’s already past eight. My shift starts in little more than an hour and runs until five. “If I do this and she agrees to join us or whatever, does that mean we wouldn’t have to worry about Mirena watching me?”
“There may be other methods she could employ, but I’d say the immediate danger would be over. Yes.”
“Alright. This afternoon,” I say, hiding my reluctance. I’ll have to call and cancel my shift with Hanson’s. Again.
“I’ll get back to you with the exact details. If you change your mind, don’t hesitate to call.”
“I’ll be fine, Hunter.”
“Selene,” he begins, but hesitates. My heart is deafening in the silence, but he ends simply with, “Thank you.”
“Well… see you soon. Hopefully,” I say before hanging up.
I shower, and then meticulously pore over my outfits and makeup. I want this woman to be able to take me seriously, but I also want to seem warm and trustworthy. At least most of my clothes are freshly laundered, giving me more of a selection than usual.
I try on a v-neck sweater with a suede skirt and black tights but the skirt is restrictive and I worry that I won’t be able to make a quick getaway if needed. I discard a second outfit, afraid that overdressing might make me too noticeable. I start to wish Brie would show up to help me decide. She’s so much better at this sort of thing than me.
I finally settle on black skinny jeans and a long burgundy sweater before picking through my jewellery. When I come across the protection amulet Yagher gave me, I hesitate with my hand on the elegant silver chain. It would certainly be useful to have. I lift it up and admire the way the light plays across the crystal, reflecting violets, pinks, and blues. I set it down. It seems undiplomatic to wear a protection spell to a meeting like this; if I want this woman to trust me, I should probably act like I trust her too. I settle on plain silver studs for my ears and a long necklace with an ornate silver pendant.
My phone vibrates. A text from Hunter says that the contact will send us the location one hour before she expects me there, apparently to prevent any sort of set-up on our part. I delete it, as I do with all of his texts, just in case.
Nothing to do now but wait, and not knowing how long I will be waiting for make me restless. I focus on chores, trying not to pick at my appearance every time I walk by a mirror. I look fine, but I feel like my appearance the only thing I have control over right now. I’ve already drilled the talking points Hunter texted me into my brain and going over them again would be neurotic.
After lunch I run out of chores and resort to tuning my guitar on the couch. I’m scared to play anything in case I start singing out of habit, or worse, have another unexpected flashback. I’m just about to give up when I hear a muffled mewling sound nearby. I dismiss it, having lived in an apartment long enough to ignore random noises. After several minutes, I recognize the sound as my own name. Glancing out the balcony window, I see a large black cat with his paw against the glass. He shoots me the dirtiest feline look I’ve ever seen – and if there’s one thing cats can do, it’s throw some mean shade.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, sliding the glass door open so he can pad inside.
“It’s getting damn cold out there,” Caelen says, shivering. He jumps onto the couch and begins cleaning himself. I pay close attention to his voice and this time I’m certain there’s the hint of an accent there, a peculiar lilt to his voice that reminds me of Mr. Harris’ own. “Hunter said I should wait with you, so we can go to the location together.”
“Right,” I acknowledge, hesitating and biting my lip before asking my next question, “Caelen, were you ever human?”
“What business is that of yours?” he replies sharply.
“None, I suppose. I just… I met a man who knew a person with the same name as you. Someone who… who died.” My voice drops, shaken by the insecurity of such a personal and absurd question.
“Well that’s unfortunate,” his voice is cold and disinterested. Oddly enough, his aloofness bolsters my confidence.
“I’m not trying to pry or bring up difficult memories or anything like that,” I begin, but he quickly interrupts.
“It’s funny how people only say they’re trying not to do something when they are, in fact, doing said thing.”
“Caelen! Someone I care about very much lost a member of their family, a loved one whose death they feel responsible for. I thought that if by some chance you were connected to that then maybe you might have something to say to each other. Maybe you could both find some sort of peace,” I finish, exasperated, and stare into his green, feline eyes. He doesn’t say anything. He’s hardly moving except for a slight flick of his tail.
Surely if he were Mr. Harris’ cousin he would want to see the old man. Maybe talk to him, let him know that it wasn’t his fault. Then I remember – he’s already seen him. That day in the cemetery, I’m certain I saw Caelen running away from us in the distance.
“You already know,” I say, my voice thick with accusation, “I thought you were following me, but you’ve been keeping an eye on Sean Harris. Why not talk to him? Tell him you’re alive? It is you, isn’t it?”
“It’s not that simple,” he says, looking away.
“I know, you’re a cat now, but I think he could understand that. He’s such an open-minded man…”
“Shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, a hiss lacing his voice.
“Then explain it to me,” I demand, “Maybe it isn’t my business, but I love that old man. I want a good reason for why you’ve let him suffer all these years thinking your death was his fault.”
“I’m not that Caelen,” the fur on his back is beginning to rise, “Caelen of Hecate House died on the cliffs twelve years ago.”
“Then who are you?” I ask, confused and angry.
He sighs, then stretches his back end high into the air. He lies down on the threadbare arm of the couch nearest the balcony window, crossing one paw over the other and resting his head to face outside. “Do you believe in fairies?”
I think about this and answer honestly, “I want to. Ever since I was little I’ve imagined magic was real. Now I find out it is, but Mr. Harris said the Limitation Stone killed things like fairies. So I guess… no, I don’t believe.”
“Caelen used to believe,” he says softly, “He knew all of the legends. He knew about the Limitation Stone too, but surely humans couldn’t have the power to keep magic from the Friendly Folk. They were just hiding from them, angry at their selfishness and pride. That’s what he told himself.’
‘He thought the answer was with the cats. They were gorgeous and wild, just like the faeries, so he did what every foolish child does in the stories. He tried to lure them close with milk and silly spells and all manner of offerings. They never told him their secrets, but they came to love the idiot. When he fell off of the cliff, they gathered around his twisted body, rubbing on him, laying against him to keep him warm. But Caelen was already dying.”
He finally turns his head towards me, tilting it comfortably against his soft black paws before continuing:
“They say cats can steal souls. They used to light fires and perform rituals to keep them away from the dead. The Cat Sidhe used to be faeries, but when magical power was routed by the humans, they lost a piece of themselves. They were trapped in their cat bodies, left to lead half-lives, unable to use their powers or communicate with the human world.
When Caelen died, one of the Sidhe used his soul to fill that gaping hole where the magic was stripped away. So you see, it’s the humans’ fault really. The Sidhe never stole souls, not until they were practically stripped of their own.”
“So you are Caelen?” I ask, confused by his refusal to address himself in first person.
He yawns, showing his white, pointed teeth and rough pink tongue. “No, I told you, Caelen died. I carry his soul, yes, but I’m not him. Just like I’m not the Cat Sidhe who once lived, trapped inside this body. I am both, and neither. I just borrowed the kid’s name. Use it out of habit, I guess.”
“But you have his memories,” I object.
“And the memories of a cat,” he retorts, “Not to mention the instincts too. Caelen was hardly a teenage boy when he died. In one more year he will have been a cat as long as he was human. Caelen the boy is long dead.”
“You should still tell him,” I say quietly, certain Mr. Harris would want to know what really became of his beloved cousin.
“That man has suffered more than enough at the hands of his family,” Caelen replies distantly.
My phone vibrating against my leg interrupts my thoughts and keeps me from arguing further. The message is from Hunter; it contains the instructions for meeting our contact.
“And how are we supposed to know which one’s our blind date?” Caelen aks.
I read the message over again and answer, “It just says, ‘follow the crow.’”
“Well it sounds like we’re already very in control of the situation,” the sarcasm in his voice is scathing.
“Let’s go,” I say, trying not to notice how my hand shakes as I open the balcony door for Caelen to go on ahead of me.