Of Cats and Dragons

Carol E. Leever Camilla Ochlan

Nights Gift AudioBook on Downpour

Solstice Thyme

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It’s all fun and games . . . until the giant frogs show up.

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How much trouble can three children and two talking cats get into?

A lot.

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Chapter 1: Balcony

"Do you think the giant kitty will play with us today?" little Caia lisped through the wide gap created by a missing tooth. Tokara tried not to giggle at the extra th in us. Her six-year-old sister was still struggling with her s sounds.

Tokara peeked through the wrought iron pickets of the bedchamber's small balcony, edging herself closer to where Caia was kneeling, small hands gripping the iron pickets, head poking out between them. Both girls set their eyes on the horse-sized orange cat prancing up and down the castle's courtyard.

"He sure looks ready to play," Tokara replied longingly. Though she was already ten years old, Tokara too was enamored with the enormous cat. He's just so fluffy!

"I don't see that little Tyrin." Caia leaned forward, squinting hard to spot the tiny kitten in the gathering below.

"He's probably in Kyr's pocket." Tokara pulled her sister back from the railing. "Careful," she said automatically.

Caia huffed and shuffled backward on her knees to what amounted to less than a half step. "I'm almost ready to go." She pulled a cap from her pocket and started cramming her long, tangled hair under it.

"Momma won't let you wear a cap all day." With so much company in the castle, Tokara knew her mother would want them to present themselves properly attired.

"But it's a big rats' nest," the little girl whined. She scrambled up so she could stomp one foot expressively. "It hurts to comb it!"

"I'll help." Tokara, well used to her sister's hair troubles, stepped away from the balcony and took a few aimless turns around Caia's room while reflecting on both their playtime and the tangle of locks. She picked up a sandalwood comb from the carved side table. "Come here, Caia," she beckoned. "I'll fix it for you."

Caia touched a snarl above her ear with chagrin. "Guess I'm not so good at braids." The little girl turned her back to Tokara, hands on the balcony railing, eyes on the goings-on below. She did, however, tug off the old cap.

Tokara returned to the balcony. Nothing is prying her away from the sight of Tormy.

"This is a braid?" Tokara poked her finger at the tangled knot in her sister's baby-fine blond hair. She could hear the murmur of conversation in the courtyard below, as she carefully unwound the knot and then ran the wide-tooth comb through the tangle of her sister's hair. "I can always braid it for you before you go to sleep," she suggested, her brain still working on their lack-of-cat problem.

Caia held very still, hardly breathing as Tokara combed through one section of hair at a time.

"I bet," Tokara's thoughts spun as she spoke, "Tormy would want to play with us if we asked real nice." She considered the obstacles, her tongue pushing against her cheek as she finished straightening Caia's hair. The blond locks shone golden in the morning light. "Momma said Omen is busy and we shouldn't bother him."

"She said that?" Caia sounded mildly outraged even as she ran both palms over her now straight and sleek hair. "Thanks. I can't ever get it to do that."

"Mm-hmm. Just got to go slow." Tokara thought about the chain of command as she handed the comb back to Caia. "We'd have to ask Omen's permission to play with his cat, but if he's too busy we can't ask. And then we can't have Tormy go down to Wood Frog Pond with us. But—" Figure it out, Caia, the solution is obvious. She didn't want to suggest the idea herself.

"But we could skip Omen and just ask Tormy." Caia caught on right away. "We shouldn't bother Omen when he's so busy."

Both girls poked their heads over the railing again and looked down at the figures practicing hand-to-hand combat in the courtyard below: Omen, Templar, Liethan, and the girls' grandfather Yoshihiro.

The night before at dinner, Omen had asked Yoshihiro if he'd be willing to train him and his friends in the Shindarian fighting arts. The table had grown very still, all aware that Omen's naive question skirted close to outrageous disrespect. A highly traditional Shindarian sword master, Yoshihiro lacked the outgoing, generous nature of his son Diatho — the girls' beloved father. The old man grumbled something unintelligible over his plate, but his tone was that of an unmistakable, unequivocal, no.

Tokara felt uncomfortable at once, but she greatly respected her grandfather and had been taught that his side of the family lived by a code of rules that reached back to his native land's millennia-old history.

Unbendable. But we're not in Shindar and some of his ancient rules are so silly. Like how he won't train me and Caia because we're girls. But then he'll watch and help when Reeve and Rask teach us the lessons he just taught them.

A Shindarian sword master chooses his pupils; they can't ask to be trained. Guess Omen didn't know that rule.

Tokara's mother had never directly spoken against Yoshihiro, but she blatantly ignored any of the Shindarian rules she disagreed with.

"What's that, Omen?" Kadana had broken the dinner table silence with laughter in her voice. "Are you really going to ask a creaky old man to teach you to fight, when you could learn so much more from me?"

Tokara's grandfather had merely clicked his tongue.

"I can't believe Momma called Baba creaky to his face," Caia had whispered.

"Don't draw attention." Tokara had given her sister a soft kick under the table, and both girls had simultaneously refocused their big-eyed attention to the entertaining back-and-forth.

Kadana had made a show of shaking her head — slowly, dramatically. "I'm deeply offended, grandson."

Omen had flushed with embarrassment, and Tokara had started to feel sorry for him. She knew how her mother always teased, and she also knew that her mother took little offense at any perceived slight.

Momma's just goofing on him. She's always even-tempered, laughs at everything.

Yoshihiro had cleared his throat. "Perhaps, Kadana-sa," he'd said with appeasement in his voice, "young Omen means not to study the swordplay that bashes and cuts. Perhaps his interest lies in the natural laws. Perhaps he is ready to learn not just the how but the why."

Kadana had played at seriously considering his words, brows knotted. "You are so wise. The boys certainly would enjoy learning the throws and holds from you. A joint-lock or two could come in handy, I bet." She'd turned to Omen. "What do you say, Omen? Will you take Yoshihiro up on his generous offer to train you?"

Tokara had tried not to giggle as Omen's and Yoshihiro's surprised expressions mirrored one another.

I wonder how long ago Momma set that in motion. She wants Omen to study with Baba, but she knows Baba would never take him on as a student. So, she tricked him. Tricked both of them.

The training had started early the next morning, and Tokara now watched intently as Baba flipped Omen over his head time and again. She could clearly hear the OOMPH of Omen's large frame hitting the makeshift straw practice mat. Omen thought his size and strength would be a match for Baba. The old man had quickly proven that guess incorrect.

"Omen does look busy," Tokara told her sister, the dinner's events inspiring a ploy in her brain.

Caia leaned over the balcony a little farther. "Sure does. And Kyr and Tormy look like they're just waiting around. I bet they're getting bored."

"And hungry," Tokara added. "How long before they head over to the kitchens?"

"Not long," Caia said with a smirk. "But shouldn't we—"

She's going to chicken out, Tokara thought with alarm.

"It's finally summer," Tokara started carefully. "If Momma won't let us go down to Wood Frog Pond by ourselves—" "She won't let us go down to Wood Frog Pond by ourselves," Caia said in a manner that felt entirely unhelpful to Tokara, "because of what happened last winter."

"That has nothing to do with it," Tokara said, instantly defensive. The search-and-rescue mission to Wood Frog Pond had been her idea when Caia's puppy had gone missing. "Momma never let us go into the woods without Rask and Reeve before that time either. And since the boys are on the Corsair Islands with Papa, we're stuck in the castle."

"All summer long?" Caia asked, furrows of concern on her forehead.

"All summer long," Tokara said lightly, hoping her sister would go with her on this.

"What if we just ask for someone else to come with us?" Caia considered, thoughtful. "Niadh, Neylie, and Zennie would go with us."

"I already asked," Tokara grumbled. "I wanted to surprise you. But Momma said that with all the company staying at the castle, everyone is too busy."

Caia's shoulders slumped.

"And Momma said that there could still be orclets or other critters running around the woods. Which means we'd need someone who is a good fighter to go with us."

"Like Tormy?" Caia's eyes lit up with excitement.

Tokara looked down again to where the giant cat now lay sprawled on the ground, fluffy belly exposed. The enormous orange and white feline snored so loudly the sound reached all the way up to the balcony.

"Just like Tormy."

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