Chapter 36

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"Feline," Hissy growled despite herself.

In the past, she had dealt with her fair share of feral cats, and most of her encounters ended poorly. From scent alone, she could tell this feline was male and wasn't he the picture of sophistication? Sitting with his big paws barely draped over the edge of the stair, bushy mane of black winter fur framing a round face studded with triangular ears.

"What brings such," the cat paused, narrow pupils widening, "foreign creatures out of the wild and into my palace?"

"You rule here?" Hissy asked warily.

"I do, and I would appreciate it if you didn't put holes in my wallpaper."

"How do I know you won't attack the second I'm on the floor?" If pushed, the madag could eject her spines like a porcupine but re-growing them was a painful business.

The cat sighed and closed its luminescent eyes as if it found dealing with simpletons exhausting. Rolling into a stretch, it flashed the pearly whites of his claws as both a subtle threat and call for good behavior. "I am but one lord and have no other underlings in this dwelling. No harm will come to you so long as you don't warrant it, but I would like an explanation as to why you're here."

"Don't trust him," one of the berry-fae squeaked into Hissy's ear.

"She's right. What if he's working for the humans?"

"I'm waiting," the cat said again, voice growing an edge.

Hissy contemplated lying and saying they were looking for a warm place to stay until nightfall. But if she did, she could miss an opportunity to find Ria the help she needed, wasting the whole venture. Releasing her grip on the wall, Hissy plopped down but refused to lower her defensive stance, quills at the ready.

"What should I call you?" His answer would determine what course of action came next. True names were powerful tools in the fae realm and weren't given without a sufficient level of trust. If the cat revealed his true name, he might be gullible and easily manipulated. That could play in her favor, but Hissy also wanted someone she could trust, not another pawn to manipulate by fae law.

The big cat straightened into a statuesque sitting position and tilted his head in greeting. "Zacharias Coal Cloud, Swift-runner and Emissary of the Embezee Pride, at your humble service. If you must call me something, call me Zacharias. That is my given human name."

Hissy drew back in surprise, recognizing the clan name. "You're an ice cat? Why are you here in a human dwelling so far from the sea?"

"That is a personal story I do not wish to share with a forest dweller who has yet to reveal her name to me."

Suddenly feeling foolish, Hissy tried to mimic the cat's stance. "Madags don't have true names, but my human friend calls me Hissy. So...Hissy of Tree Spring, First of Her Name, Madage...budling?"

Zacharias must have found a kernel of mirth in the madag's attempt at station declaration because his shoulders began to shake. "Well then, Hissy, welcome to my home. Why are you here?"

He hadn't given his true name but rather his pride title. That was a good sign Hissy could trust him enough to be honest. She would have liked to move out of the openness of the hall, but this was Zacharias' home. She had to respect that fact...for now. "We've come looking for something to help my human."

"I see." Zacharias bobbed his fluffy head. "And what is it you seek?"

"We're looking for something to help Ria-human get better," one of the berry-fae said before Hissy could explain.

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