Time couldn’t pass quickly enough the next day. Elaine worked on the tablecloth, but every stitch felt like it took an hour. She got a lot done, but it was only around three o’clock by the time she was sick of thinking about Katherine and not getting to see her.
All day, she’d been stuck replaying the events of the evening before, especially the kiss at the end. Her thoughts wouldn’t stop ricocheting between wanting to believe that Katherine actually liked her, and wondering if it had just been some sort of in-the-moment impulse.
As for Elaine’s feelings, she was certain she’d never felt anything like this before. She’d lived in the city when she was little, and had had a few friends who would occasionally giggle about various boys who lived nearby. She’d always assumed she just wasn’t that kind of person. And since she’d spent the rest of her life since then all but alone, she hadn’t really given romance and relationships much thought. Now, though, just thinking about Katherine brought a smile to her face and made her feel warm inside.
Finally, Elaine gave up on sewing for the moment. She put her things for it away, then gathered up paper, a pencil, some colors, and set to drawing. She did her best to reimagine Katherine on paper as she’d been last night, with her orange eyes framed by some stray white-tipped strands of hair that had escaped from her braids. The line of her jaw, the tilt of her head, the curves of her red- and gold-clad body.
Elaine was just starting on a starry background behind Katherine’s image when she heard a familiar thump on her roof. She was on her feet in an instant, her drawing all but forgotten.
Elaine stepped outside, feeling a little nervous, and looked up to see a very cross-looking black cat staring out at the city from her roof.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Elaine asked.
The cat finally looked down, her hard orange eyes seeming softer as her ears unflattened. “No, I could use some real company.”
Elaine stared, surprised. “I didn’t know you could talk while you were in cat form.”
Katherine laughed, which sounded a little odd coming from a cat. “Well, I usually don’t; it might blow my cover if someone heard my cat talking.”
“Fair point.” Elaine found her ladder and quickly climbed up the roof, forgetting to put a stabilizing spell on it for once. “So, what brings you here today?”
Katherine shrugged, her tail twitching. “The usual. I get tired of being chased around, and it’s nice here. There’s one man in particular who’s much too determined to get his hands on me.”
“Sir Strickland?” Elaine guessed.
Katherine glanced at Elaine. “No, he’s alright. He feeds me, for one thing—” Elaine chuckled— “and he seems willing to wait for me to decide when I’ll come to him.
“The annoying one is Lord Watts. He seems to think that he’s entitled to marry me, that if my parents hadn’t died, they would have arranged a marriage between us, and my uncle wouldn’t have interfered and set up this elaborate scheme.”
Elaine frowned. “I thought that the cat thing was your idea?”
Katherine tilted one paw from side to side in a “so-so” gesture. “Kind of. I told Stephan that I… wasn’t so sure about who I should marry, and he told me that it’s common for Enchanters to set up complicated things like this to figure it out. Things that are supposed to help you find someone who’s willing to work for your love.”
I would work the rest of my life for that. Elaine blushed at the unprompted thought. “It hasn’t worked thus far, I suppose?”
Katherine looked at Elaine, her cat’s eyes unreadable. “Maybe not how I thought it would.”
Elaine could tell that she was smiling and blushing like a dork, so she stood up to get down from the roof. “Life is like that sometimes, isn’t it?”
Before she could get onto the ladder, Katherine was suddenly standing in front of her in human form, wearing simple red and black clothes. She offered her hand to Elaine. “It is, sometimes.”
Elaine took Katherine’s hand, the touch sending a thrill down her arm. Without warning, Katherine pulled Elaine tight to her body and wrapped her arms around her, then stepped off the roof.
The two of them fell only for a brief moment, then were suddenly caught by something and began to lift into the air, higher and higher until Elaine's house was smaller than the palm of her hand. Elaine laughed in surprise and exhilaration.
Elaine looked up to see that they were being sped through the air by some kind of hang glider-type contraption that definitely hadn’t been there before. She looked down, and saw that they were already getting close to the city. “Are we going somewhere?” Elaine shouted over the whipping wind.
“I just wanted to show you more of the city, as I promised! I didn’t think you’d ever seen it from the top before!”
“You were right about that!” Elaine laughed, watching in awe as the buildings and streets and tiny figures passed below them.
They made it across the entire city in a few minutes, going so fast that Elaine caught only flashes of various colors and shapes. Once they made it to the edge, their flying contraption slowed down and began taking them around the city, giving Elaine an amazing view of fountains, animals, people going about all kinds of work and play, and all sorts of things she hadn’t seen even in her wandering through this place on her own just the day before.
It’s… magical, Elaine thought, feeling a pang in her chest. Truly.
Finally, Elaine remembered that Katherine was still holding her, arms wrapped around Elaine despite the fact that she was sure it wasn’t entirely necessary with the magic available to her. Elaine turned her head to see an expression of amusement, pride, and something she couldn’t quite identify mixed together on Katherine’s face as she looked at Elaine.
Katherine blushed and turned her gaze to the city below them. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Elaine looked back down as well. “It is, really.”
“Sometimes, when I forget how much I love this place, I just come up here to remind myself why it’s worth the effort I have to put into it.”
Elaine nodded in understanding, then relaxed in Katherine’s arms, leaning her head against her chest. She felt Katherine’s breathing hitch for a moment, and she smiled to herself.
Eventually they landed somewhere in the residential area of town; Elaine could hear people nearby, but there wasn’t anyone in sight of the alley between houses that Katherine had landed them in. The two of them were leaning against one of the walls, the flying contraption folding itself out of existence. Katherine hadn’t let go of Elaine yet, and Elaine didn’t intend to make her.
“I never realized how nice the city is,” Elaine admitted, unable to keep a hint of sadness out of her voice.
Katherine didn’t miss that hint. “Didn’t your parents ever take you here when you were younger?”
“They did, a few times. It was more dangerous for me then, though, before my house was built. Harder to guarantee my safety— especially since I was much smaller. I loved it when we did come out, though. Most of the time.”
“Did something happen?”
Elaine nodded, swallowing against the lump that formed in her throat when she remembered the incident. “You know I’m a sliver. Even if I hadn’t told you, you would have noticed eventually.” Elaine moved forward a bit, and Katherine let go so Elaine could lean against the wall opposite her. She looked at the ground as she continued, “I’m sure you know all the different ways of picking them out of a crowd; I know there are lots of magical ways to sense those who aren’t quite right with the Spirits. And there’s always a physical mark as well, one that’s hard to hide. Eye color, hair color, scars, birthmarks.”
Elaine looked up at Katherine, who was listening intently, her orange eyes curious. “Mine is a little more subtle. No one knows I’m a sliver just by looking at me; for all intents and purposes, I look like any other ordinary girl in the city.
“It’s only when you look for long enough that you realize something’s wrong: maybe my eyes aren’t the color you thought they were. Maybe there’s a birthmark you hadn’t seen before. It’s as if I had all of the indicators of a sliver, but also none of them, at the same time. It’s worse when I’ve become too magic-saturated; the therapists said that the magic trapped inside of me is what causes it.”
Katherine nodded, understanding dawning in her eyes. Elaine went on. “So one day, Mom and Dad had some sort of business in the city center. They didn’t want to leave me behind, in case there was, you know, any problems with me while they were gone, so they took me with them. Honestly all I really remember is that I had already been feeling pretty bad, and the place that we went to made everything a lot worse. There was magic all over the place, and there I was, just taking it all in with no way to protect myself.
“And suddenly whoever my parents were talking to just looked at me and… he said ‘What is wrong with her?’” Elaine felt her voice shake and took a calming breath. “As if I was the most horrifying thing he had seen in his life. It scared me so badly. And my parents seemed so worried, they tried to explain without calling me a sliver— they never called me that— and he just got so angry. He yelled and called me all kinds of things and forced all of us out…”
Elaine shook her head, tears welling in her eyes. “I was just a little girl. To have an adult that even my parents were afraid of screaming at me like I was an animal… I never went out after that, and it wasn’t much later when we left the city altogether. It took years before I came here again, and only out of necessity. It’s gotten better with time, but even time doesn’t heal everything.” Elaine rubbed her upper arm, where her sleeve hid the scar that she’d gotten that day, backing away from the man into something sharp.
Katherine stepped forward and took Elaine’s hands, looking intently into her eyes. “Being a sliver doesn’t mean anything about your worth. You know that?”
Elaine looked down, feeling like she was going to cry, but Katherine lifted her chin back up so Elaine was forced to look at her. “It doesn’t mean anything, do you hear me? Whatever the Spirits do or don’t do for you, whatever the magic does to you, you are important. And you’re competent. And you’re beautiful.”
Elaine laughed bitterly. “Beautiful?”
“Elaine, I’ve spent less than two days with you and I think you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever laid eyes on. The way the magic makes you look a little different every time makes me want to never stop looking at you, so I can see all the changes. Your eyes are like… like gemstones, with a facet of every different color they could be. I love your long hair, and how it changes colors in every lighting. The way you carry yourself and do things when you’re relaxed is so smooth, hypnotizing.” Katherine shook her head, smiling. She took Elaine’s face in her hands and wiped the tears from her cheeks with her thumbs, giving Elaine a searching look. “You’re breathtaking.”
Elaine couldn’t keep a bittersweet smile off her face, even as tears were sliding down her cheeks. “Have you seen a mirror?” she quipped through the lump in her throat. “It’s hard to believe someone as beautiful as you would think I’m anything to look at.”
Katherine shook her head, smiling just a little, and hesitated before leaning in closer to Elaine. “Would this help you believe it?”
Elaine leaned forward as Katherine kissed her, just once before pulling back as if nervous. But Elaine whispered, “It might,” and kissed Katherine back.
Katherine pulled Elaine away from the wall, her arms wrapping around Elaine’s waste as Elaine put her arms around Katherine’s neck. The rest of the world seemed to melt away as Elaine lost herself in the feel of Katherine’s hands on her back, the taste of Katherine on her lips.
The moment ended abruptly with a cry of “What—?!” from the mouth of the alleyway.
Katherine and Elaine broke apart and Elaine looked to see a young, well-dressed man staring at them.
“Lady Katherine?” the man asked in an incredulous voice.
“Spirits,” Katherine swore quietly. “Lord Watts.”
Elaine winced, looking at Katherine. “What should we do?”
Katherine looked almost as worried as Elaine felt. “Let’s run.”
So they did.