“Who’s coming?” I asked Mildred as I opened the door to let her in.
The Siamese limped inside, the hair on her head still matted, and narrowed her blue eyes at Sol. “What’s he doing here?”
I grabbed the water bottle and gave it a shake to warn her to behave. “Who’s coming?”
“The Cullers, you stupid girl. Who else?” she hissed nastily.
I shrugged. For all I knew it could be the cops coming to haul me away for supposedly assaulting Karen.
“What happened to you?” Sol asked, peering at her closely.
She held her head high with all the dignified dismissiveness a cat can muster. “That’s none of your business.”
“She said she was defending her castle,” I informed him.
“Against who?” the magician asked.
“The one trying to break in,” the cat replied haughtily.
Sol’s gaze slid to Glory. “If they were breaking in to steal the hod, we’ve got to get rid of her.”
“Don’t put me back in shadow,” the pot begged. “Please. Not shadow.”
Her desperation tugged at my heart. “No one’s going to do that.”
Sol shook his head at me. “We can’t get involved with this. With whoever wants her.”
“One,” I told him. “There is no we. Two, nobody tells me what to do.”
“Except me,” Mildred meowed maliciously.
“And sometimes me,” Conroy added. “And Link on occasion.”
I waited for Valentina to chime into the chorus of those offering instruction, but she remained silent. “Fine,” I muttered. I pulled Link out and squeezed him in my fist. “Should I put Glory back where I found her?”
“No!” Glory said as I tossed the penny in the air.
I held out my hand, waiting for him to tumble back into my palm.
But he didn’t.
The coin hovered in the air, close to the ceiling, seemingly immune to the power of gravity.
I glared at Sol. “Let him go.”
“It’s not me,” he murmured, staring at the copper disc transfixed.
“Is it her?” I asked pointing to Glory. “Is it some sort of self-defense magic?”
“A hod has no proactive powers on their own,” Erich told me.
I stared at the top hat. “But you—”
“A hod can’t act alone. They need to be in contact with another magical energy. I can’t create the rabbit hole with Sol’s presence. I can’t defend myself against attack until you actually touch me.”
Reaching up, I grabbed for the penny.
“You know the answer,” Valentina whispered in a voice so soft I was sure that only I could hear it.
I wasn’t sure that I did, but I had never challenged the wisdom of my protector and now, in front of everyone, didn’t seem the time to start.
I pulled the coin down and stuck it in my pocket.
“You’ve got to get rid of her,” Sol said. “A stolen hod…”
“She’s stolen?” Mildred screeched, arching her back, making her hair stand on end. “Are you mad? Get it out. Get it out of here now. I command you.”
I shot her in the face with the water bottle.
“I hate you,” she yowled slinking beneath the passenger seat.
“The feeling’s mutual,” I assured her.
“The maddener’s not wrong,” Sol muttered. “Having a stolen hod in one’s possession is asking for trouble.”
Ignoring him, I turned to Glory and asked, “Who do you belong to?”
“Clay,” she said with a hint of pride.
“Full name,” Sol prompted.
The pot remained silent.
“Maybe we could return her to this Clay guy,” I suggested. “I’m sure she’ll explain that I wasn’t the one who stole her.”
“Of course,” she trilled happily. “Oh, I’m going home.”
“We don’t know where home is and without knowing your wizard’s name, he’s going to be awfully hard to find,” Sol reminded her.
“Ahem,” Conroy began.
We waited for him to continue. He said nothing.
“What?” I asked, exasperated. I was tempted to give the owl a good shaking.
“I was thinking it might be a good idea to determine why Nightway wants the hod.”
“Good question,” Sol said.
“The Culler’s after her?” Mildred asked from her hiding place. “Are you complete idiots? Don’t you know what that means?”
I wasn’t about to tell her that I didn’t, but if Sol’s sudden scowl was any indication, he did and it didn’t mean anything good.
“Nightway’s absorbed the wizard’s energy. It’s the only way he’d be able to truly harness the power of the hod,” Mildred said.
Glory let out a pained gasp, a strangely heartbreaking sound coming from a kitchen implement. “Clay has been culled?”
“You don’t know that for sure,” I quickly soothed.
“I belong to no one?” she whined. “I belong nowhere?”
I wanted to give the pot a hug. I knew that feeling all too well. “We’ll figure it out.”
“And what about the tailless squirrel?” Mildred groused. “Have you forgotten about him? If I don’t perform the ritual tonight, all is lost. We’ll be stuck with each other for eternity.”
“And who’s fault is that?” I snapped.
“This isn’t the time for blame,” she replied testily. “It’s the time for action.”
“Because of the moon,” I murmured. I was starting to get a little bit of a handle on this magic stuff. Even if I did hate it.
“It’s not the moon,” Sol said getting to his feet. “Moon magic isn’t a real thing.”
“But—” I began to protest.
“It’s a public relations trick,” the magician explained. “They tell you it has to happen at a full moon or whatever and boom the gullible public suddenly believes.”
“Is that true?” I asked Conroy.
“Yes,” the owl confirmed.
“Why didn’t you tell me that when she was saying it had to be done with the moon?”
“Because she must need the specific date,” the necklace said. “I saw no point in trying to force her to explain why, which you undoubtedly would have tried and failed to do. It made sense to just go along with her ruse.”
Sol got to his feet. “Can I talk to you alone? Minus the hods, the maddener, and your redia?”
“I don’t recommend that,” Conroy said quickly. “It is my job to aid you at all times.”
“Please,” Sol asked, his expression serious. “It’s important.”
I nodded slowly and began to remove the necklace.
“Don’t!” Conroy fumed. “Don’t you do this.”
“It’ll be okay,” I assured him.
“He’s shuhval,” Glory reminded the owl. “He won’t harm her.”
“Still,” the owl pouted, “I don’t like being excluded.”
“We’ll be right back,” I promised him, putting him down beside Erich.
I led the way outside, Sol following. I scanned the area for blue shimmer but spotted none.
He closed the door firmly behind him and moved twenty paces away, to ensure our conversation would not be overheard by those in Princess. I hesitated a moment and then followed him, hoping I wasn’t making a mistake.
“I need you to tell me something,” he began.
“I’ve already told you,” I said on an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know my name.”
He nodded. “I believe you.”
I squinted at him, suspicious of his new tact.
“What does fidian mean?” he asked quietly.
“Fidian…you had to have heard the voice that called me that earlier.”
I bit my inner lip, debating whether to lie and say I hadn’t heard Valentina yell the strange word at him.”
“You’re a terrible liar, so don’t even try,” Sol said, he turned and looked away.
“I don’t know what it means,” I admitted.
He rubbed the back of his neck as though talking to me was giving him a headache. “It means one without faith or belief.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t about to ask what he was lacking faith in.
He whirled to face me again, his shrewd gaze boring into mine. “Who said it?”
I wanted to look away, to escape his searching, but I couldn’t. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Try,” he urged.
It was easier to show him. Swallowing hard, trying to ignore the racing of my heart. I grabbed the hem of the oversized t-shirt I wore and slowly began to raise it.
He focused his laser-like gaze on my hands. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he followed the process of my unveiling.
I trembled as I slowly revealed my torso.
“This,” I told him on a whisper. “is Valentina. My protector.”