“Do you have everything packed?”
They stood at the opening of the cavern and thankfully it had paused in its snowing and there wasn’t ash falling out of the sky anymore, at least nothing big enough for Naida to see. It was between sunset and before moonrise so was very dark and very cold.
“I do.” Naida had her new kit rolled in her blanket and tied across her back and held a small brass lantern in her hand. “Is Sybaris all right? I can’t hear her. And why are we leaving when it’s this dark?”
“I already explained that I didn’t want to give the villagers on this island fits if they see us and yes Syb is just fine… she’s probably just arranging things exactly to her liking and grumbling that she can’t fit a hot pool inside.”
Naida adjusted the shawl tied tight over her head and giggled as she clambered up on Temis’s back. “Hook the lamp on my harness, grab the two handholds,” the sphinx commanded. “Asteri… are you ready?”
“I’m already gone! I won’t catch up until I’ve found your ushera, Efra-Naida!” His golden hoof twinkled in the dark and she couldn’t see him for more than a bounce or two. “I’ll be flying soon!” He baa’ed back at them. Each bound was higher and longer than the last. “See you sooooooon!”
“Will he be flying?”
“He needs to. He can bound from island to island but to get to where your companion last was he’ll need to find his wings.”
“I hope…” Naida gasped as Temis’s wings snapped open, flapped once, twice. She crouched down, pushing her knees under the strap Temis had made and grabbed on tight to the hand-holds.
“He’ll be all right. I’m so sorry I can only take you as far as the sea my dear.” Her hindquarters bunched and she sprang into the sky harder and faster than Asteri’s bouncing.
Naida’s breath was torn right out of her and she tucked her head into Temis’s shoulder, gasping, clinging white knuckled. Even with all the wool she wore and the sphinx’s furnace hot body she was cold all over her back and her hands and feet too.
Temis’s hard feathers snapped and boomed, her brazen wings flapping them higher and higher. Naida was glad that her hair was so tightly braided or she thought that it would be in knots from the wind that needed to be shaved off.
It was almost with a harpy-like crackle of wing-lightning that Temis’s wings stiffened and suddenly they were gliding smoothly in a sky so black it was like… swimming in ink, Naida thought. Temis turned her head to speak into Naida’s ear. “Look down!” She called. “That’s the village you were headed for, already behind us. And the next one, another day’s walk.”
“You are flying so fast!” Naida managed to gasp out as she made out the faint dots of the fires below, mostly Temple lights. “We’ll be at the coast by morning!”
“We have to be quick or people will see me and rattle their weapons and send their young men to come monster hunting.”
“You wouldn’t kill them, Temis!”
“No, but I’m enough of a cat that I’d certainly play with them for a while.” She purred into the wind. “Let me get a little more height Kitten. I’ll set you down on the outskirts of Paraxenous.”
“You’re doing this so I don’t cry all over and get your fur all wet.”
“Yes indeed. Kitten this is just a short trip you’re taking it’s not even going to take you weeks to get home, with our help, instead of moons. You won’t even be a year older by the time you get home and when you do you can always talk to me from your Red House every moon. Syb’s mirror will be working again.”
Naida tried to just listen but big tears squeezed out from under her closed lids and were whipped away by the cold wind. “All right.”
“I’ll even come and visit if we can get permission from the Sun Twins… for something big… a wedding, a birth, something like that.”
“But you can’t really leave your library.”
“I have a friend who would look after it for me. All he says is ‘ook’ but he’s good with books.”
“There we are… hold on!” Even though she hadn’t twitched her wings, Naida’s stomach lurched and it was like they suddenly fell. Then Temis’s wings thundered to life again and her haunches bunched forward and Naida yelped and tried to sit very high on her neck. Then they were down. “See? Not a problem.”
Naida swallowed hard and tried not to vomit as she slid down. Here on the lee side of the island there was hardly any snow at all and her feet crunched on stone at the top of a cliff. Below, a long way below, she could hear the sea. It sounded different on this side of the island. It even smelled different.
She could smell the port village. It was so much bigger than Afaris with a hundred or more lights. She swallowed and flung her arms around Temis’s neck.
“The sun will be up soon. I need to go, Kitten,” she said, finally and unhooked the brass lamp to hand to Naida. “There should be a Phoenician ship at dock, ask for Sukka’s vessel. No one can pronounce the name of his ship so just ask for him. He’ll be arguing with the mayor and her Great Harpy.”
Naida froze. “The mayor of the village has a Harpy? How is that possible?”
“Oh, that’s Tengla. She’s a friend. Nothing like those Hellion Harpies you know. She’s very vain and would be offended if you compared her to that filthy vermin… But you don’t need to talk to her, you just need to get to Sukka. Oh, and don’t offer to pay in coin. Syb can help you there. Offer to pay in fair wind.”
“Um… all right.” She straightened and took the lamp that suddenly lit all around them. “Thanks, Sybaris.” Temis raised a paw and brushed back a swath of braids that had suddenly fallen forward out from under her head shawl, and dried her cheek on that side.
“Go home safe, Kitten. Know that I’m here and always will be if you need a safe spot.”
“Yes, Mama Cat.”