â€œIsnâ€™t she a beauty?â€ Jassa ran one hand along the horseâ€™s flank, turning to Serafin.
â€œYou can actually ride her?â€ Serafin gaped at her fellow wife, impressed. The horse, Midnight Sky, must have been a solid twenty hands high, and Jassa did not look like she would be able to lever herself up to its flank, let alone ride it. Black as night, with a mane that almost seemed on fire, the horse whickered, sounding amused at the comment, and smoothly knelt to the ground. Jassa laughed, vaulting on.
â€œYou arenâ€™t scared of her, are you?â€ She held out a hand, and Serafin shook her head, stepping forwards to let the other girl pull her up. She wasnâ€™t about to be upstaged by anybody, even a monster like this.
Sheâ€™d been in the castle for four days now, but in that time, she hadnâ€™t seen hide nor hair of her godly husband. Maya, the first wife to have come to the castle four months earlier, confided that this wasnâ€™t uncommon, to date. Their husband rarely appeared for dinner, and many of them only saw him two or three times a week at best â€“ occasionally, he would vanish entirely for a week at a time, only to return and shower them all with affection for a few days before returning to his solitary habits. Maya, a sweet little woman who reached Serafinâ€™s shoulders, put her to shame; her radiant blonde hair cascaded down her back, making Serafin feel like a dirt farmer by comparison. Maya also had a knack for making people feel at home, and had quickly moved to include Serafin in the activities of the other three wives.
Jassa had been Lord Alakazarâ€™s second wife, and she seemed more than content with her life in the castle. She had come down to the stables to show off the great horse that her lord had given her shortly after she arrived, claiming that he also rode it, and that he would ride it into battle if the Realm returned to Hazelburn. Seeing Midnight Sky now, Serafin could believe that, as the horse kicked into a gallop that sent the wind whistling through her hair, running down the hillside as surefooted as though she was running across the plains.
The third wife, Teluri, was somewhat more reserved and quiet, and Serafin hadnâ€™t gotten a firm grasp of her nature as of yet. She, too, had a gift from the lord, a beautiful bird of a sort that Serafin had never seen, with a song so sweet she thought it might lull a dragon to sleep. It often sat and sang for the wives as they ate, or read, or played the games that had been brought for them. Teluri herself rarely joined the games, preferring to read, but she always sat with the others rather than retreating to her own room. Maya had no companion beast, but had only laughed when Serafin asked and said that she had so many other gifts, she wouldnâ€™t know what to do with them all.
The ride was over all too soon, and Serafin slid off the horse with an undignified yelp, feeling her legs wobble beneath her. â€œAnd you do this every day?â€
â€œIf I can. She gets lonely, otherwise, donâ€™t you, Midnight?â€ Jassa turned from rubbing the horseâ€™s side, and let out a gasp of her own. â€œLord Alakazar! I didnâ€™t see you!â€
Serafin spun around as well, with a rapid curtsey. She was almost certain that the lord had not been there only moments earlier, but she had to admit that he might have walked up. Quite quickly. Extremely quickly. â€œMy lord.â€
â€œPlease, please.â€ A single, perfect wave of his hand, and Alakazar smiled. â€œYou have no need to stand on ceremony.â€ Stepping forwards, he reached up to scratch the horseâ€™s mane; she whinnied happily and rubbed against him. Turning to Jassa, he smiled. â€œShe truly is wondrous, Jassa. You take care of her well.â€
â€œThank you, sir.â€ Jassa dimpled nervously, bowing with a smile. Alakazar turned to Serafin.
â€œSerafin, if you would come with me for a moment. I have something for you.â€ He strolled away without waiting for a reply. Serafin paused long enough to exchange a confused glance with Jassa, who shrugged, and then followed her husband.
She caught up to him in a small courtyard, with a bubbling brook running under the wall in an impossible manner to coil around a tree. He was sitting on a stone bench, and patted the spot next to it in a clear gesture. With a nervous smile of her own, she sat down beside him. â€œYes, my lord?â€
â€œPlease, just Alakazar.â€ Reaching into his robes, he pulled out a small bundle of fur, which unrolled itself to reveal a small calico cat, who purred softly, opening bright green eyes and looking around. â€œThis is yours.â€
Reaching out, Serafin took the cat with a gasp of joy. It blinked up at her, batting halfheartedly without letting its claws out, and purred more loudly. â€œOh, heâ€™s adorable!â€ As she studied the cat, something tickled at the back of her mind, but it was momentarily pushed as Alakazar continued.
â€œYou will have to name him, of course, but I imagine you have something in your heart. He will guard you, as well as bringing joy â€“ I hope.â€ She looked up from the cat, who had unrolled from her lap and jumped neatly to the ground, to find Alakazar watching her intently. â€œDo you like him?â€
â€œI love him!â€ Serafin spoke, for a moment, without thinking of him as a god, and was rewarded with a smile. She turned to watch the little cat, and laughed as he started chasing a butterfly. â€œHeâ€™s perfect! Heâ€™sâ€¦â€ The thought suddenly crystallized, and she blinked. â€œHeâ€™s my cat.â€
â€œYes, I believe that I said that.â€ Lord Alakazar looked mildly confused.
â€œNo, I mean, heâ€™s actually my cat. My old cat, Flicker.â€ She smiled, half-confused. â€œHe always used to sleep on my bed, when I was little; Matron told me that cats scared the monsters away. But he diedâ€¦ three years ago.â€ She looked up to the god. â€œDid you bring him back to life?â€
â€œSuch is far beyond my power.â€ Alakazar watched the cat. â€œHe is born from your dreams, your beliefs in something to watch over and guide you, as are the other guardian behemoths of this castle.â€ There was a nervousness in his expression that was the most human that Serafin had ever seen him. â€œIs he well?â€
â€œItâ€™sâ€¦ Heâ€™s lovely.â€ Serafin leaned in impulsively, giving Alakazar a kiss on the cheek. â€œThank you.â€
â€œExcellent. Good.â€ Standing abruptly, Alakazar bowed. â€œWill you join me for dinner, my lady?â€
â€œOf course.â€ Serafin stood as well, giving him another curtsey, and he nodded.
â€œVery well, then. I will see you at sundown.â€ Smiling, with a second bow, he turned to leave. Serafin watched him go for a moment, then turned her attention to Flicker, who was still happily watching the butterfly. There was a sudden blur of motion, impossibly quick, and the cat was perched on the insect, watching it struggle. Then he stepped backwards, letting it fly away.