That night, I lay across a chair and hindrest in the parlor as I had each night since my arrival. My eyes were closed, my breathing even, but my mind raced and my heart pounded in my chest. Thoughts of Mister Dion’s requests, of the future and the unknown, kept me from the quiet reverie that Aura had just taught me how to find. At points, I fell into a fitful daze, but then I would fall out again just as quickly. I might have even slept at some point, but I got no rest that night.
Through the windows, the sky was still dark with a scattering of stars when I first heard the thumping of the raccoon’s steps on the stairs. I stifled a yawn and forced myself out of the chair and onto my knees. Aura, still in a cotton bedrobe, stepped into the parlor and drew the cover from one of the witchlights. “It’s time to—oh, you’re awake.” She blocked a yawn with one paw, motioning for me to rise with the other. “I’ll start a kettle. Did you sleep?”
I shook my head as I stood. Every joint felt stiff and I could barely keep my eyes open. I stretched my arms wide, then blearily jerked my paw back as I bumped a shelf, sending a small stack of scrolls tumbling to the ground. “I’ll get that,” I mumbled as I turned.
“Don’t bother,” the sage replied, waving away the additional clutter with her paw. “I didn’t think you’d get much rest. No matter. Follow me.” She turned and tossed the cover back at the witchlight, casting the room back into darkness. Then she squeezed back into the cramped hallway, making her way towards the kitchen. I followed as best as I could, gingerly picking my way across the floor, trying to remember where the scrolls and other things had fallen. At one point, my hip met an overfull shelf, which sent a second cascade of books and scrolls to the floor, but Aura merely made another dismissive gesture.
The sage’s kitchen was eerily common, though it felt as cramped as the rest of her house. A stone fireplace took up most of an inside wall, and copper and clay pots hung from hooks on another. Earthenware dishes sat in a stack on the counter that filled the middle of the room, and a few simple wooden chairs beside it. A barrel on one side of the back door held water, and a stack of wood sat the other. Murky glass bottles and jars sat on any flat space that would hold them. As Aura entered, she freed the kettle from a hook over a pile of smoldering embers, then knelt in front of the coals. “Fetch me a log,” she said as I passed, and by the time I’d returned with one, she’d stoked the coals and some fresh kindling back into a cheerful fire. “Have a seat.”
Once she had water in the kettle, she moved to the counter and began rummaging through spices and herbs. As she opened each container, she tested the contents, pulling pinches of dried leaves or sniffing at droplets of dark liquids. She shook one jar, then sniffed at the yellowish cloud that escaped as she cracked its seal; almost immediately she began to sneeze, her tail lashing behind her as she scrunched her muzzle. As she proceeded across the counters, she added a few pinches of this or a few drops of that to the pot. Through it all, I sat at the table, watching half-dazedly as she made tea.
Finally, she seemed satisfied with her blend, and she put the kettle back on the hook over the crackling flames as they chewed through the fresh wood. “That’ll be a few minutes,” she murmured as she dropped into a chair beside me. “How do you feel? Nervous?” I yawned again and nodded, and she continued. “Understandable.” She chuckled and picked at one ragged sleeve with her claws. “I’ve no words to calm that, save that yours won’t be the hardest work I’ve ever done. Tricky, yes, intricate, but I’ve seen a—” She cut herself off sharply there, then waves her paw. “Well, I’ve helped with worse.”
I tilted my head to the side and leaned forward slightly. “You’ve seen what?” As soon as the words were out of my muzzle, I flinched. Aura had been so kind to me, I’d almost forgotten that I was a slave. Just a slave.
Aura made no immediate answer to either my question or grimace. “You’ll hear the stories, no doubt. You’ll be in the thick of it all; best I not muddle the issue with my side of things.” She grimaced. “What’s the memory of a spinster sage fetch at market?”
I lowered my head and voice, then risked a second question. “Is this about… Melka?”
Aura sat still for the span of several breaths, only her tail in motion. Her expression didn’t change, but it seemed that a wall had risen behind her eyes when she looked at me next. “It is, but she and I are history. You’ll be dealing with the present, and the past will only burden you.” She visibly forced a smile to her muzzle, but her gaze remained cool. “Besides, it wouldn’t do for a slave to be asking questions, now would it?”
I bit my lip at that and ducked my head. “No, ma’am,” I replied, chastened.
The raccoon chuckled and reached over to stroke between my ears as she stood. “You’ll do fine, I think, as long as you can keep your tongue in your head. Thankfully Dion didn’t ask for me to do anything about that. He seemed to think you ought to keep it. Can’t imagine why.” I flushed, and her chuckle became a full-throated laugh as she stepped over to the fire. Moments before her fingers touched the handle, it began to whistle, then stopped as soon as she pulled it away from the flames. She carried it to the table, then passed me a cup and filled it with hot tea. “Drink; it’ll do you good.”
I lifted the clay mug to my muzzle and sniffed; hints of pepper and cinnamon tickled my nostrils, as well as other floral scents and a hint of smoke. I blew across the surface, watching the shimmery liquid ripple, then gingerly sipped it. Despite the spicy scent, it tasted mostly sweet with a minty finish, and it coated my tongue on its way to my throat, then settled in the pit of my stomach with a cool tingle. I sipped a second time, then swirled the cup, watching the lights dance off of the surface.
Aura nodded encouragingly, then motioned for me to finish my drink. “You’ll be wanting another, I think. You’ve had a rough night and could use it.” As soon as I emptied the mug, I held it out to her, and she filled it to the brim. “Go easy on that one, but that should be enough. If you start to feel sick, let me know.” She set down the kettle, then stood and took a mug for herself.
I sipped at my tea, marveling at how it made me feel, so like the silvery glow of the twelve motes in the witchlight. My pawpads felt a bit clammy, but I shivered as if cold. My lips were starting to go numb, and I let out a quiet giggle at the sensation. I thought that the tea was supposed to make me more alert, but by the time I was halfway through my second mug, that leaden sensation was definitely seeping back into my bones. I wanted to yawn, but I didn’t feel tired, just heavy, as if I were staring into the sphere again. “Aura? Something’s… wrong.”
“What’s that?” the sage called from the back door. She stood leaning against the water barrel with her mug in her paw. “Something not to your liking?”
I shook my head, and the kitchen swam slowly in front of my eyes. “No, ma’am.” My tongue felt too big for my muzzle, its tip numb like my lips. “Do you feel it?” I tried to stand, but when I put my free paw on the table, I could barely lift myself. I wasn’t tired, and my head was clear, but my body wouldn’t respond to my thoughts. “What was… in that tea?”
“Tea?” Aura chuckled into her mug as she approached the table. “That was the first part of the ritual.”
Sickening awareness spread up from a sudden knot in the pit of my stomach. My ears still tried to shoot up in surprise, but I could barely move them. “What?”
The sage set down her mug, half full with clear water, next to mine. “You’re going to have to learn to pay more attention to what people say, little light.”
Warmth and heaviness hit me like an overstuffed quilt and pillow. As my eyes closed, my paw rattled the mug against the table. “I am ready,” I murmured, my voice weak and distant.
“Not yet, you’re not, but you will be soon,” Aura replied. “Finish your mug, then follow me. It’s time.”