I'm having trouble motivating myself to finish the self-editing stage of book one of this series (much more fun to finish writing book two ;)). Hopefully, posting it here on fictionpress will provide me with a little push. I'm aiming to post 1-2 chapters/week. This is still a draft. Comments are always welcome! I'm always looking for how to be a better writer.

Teloria: The Book of the Stars by Elizabeth Frerichs (c) Elizabeth Frerichs 2017

Princess Ilane rolled her shoulders with a sigh. She'd spent twenty minutes putting her hair up because the maid hadn't shown up again. If she'd been another princess, in another land, the maid would never have dared to neglect her. Instead, she was herself—the inconvenient princess who everyone wished was a boy. No one would reprimand her maid. Well, her father might if he discovered it, but it would be for form's sake. After all, the royalty of Teloria ought to command respect.

She shook the thought off, reminding herself it didn't matter what anyone else thought—she was Teloria's princess. Now was not the time for gloom. Pinching her cheeks, she arranged herself artfully on the velvet-covered bench in her bedroom's antechamber. A smile played about her lips as she thought about Iram. Her vivid blue eyes sparkled, and she was sure she was ravishing. The thrill of a challenge always put her in her best looks, and Iram was nothing if not a challenge. Older, with his own will, he was a man among the many boys at court. She sneered as their images paraded through her mind—geldings, the lot of them. Too afraid of her father's displeasure, the young men at court did little more than make polite, stilted conversation with her or steal glances.

Ilane shifted, rearranging her skirts so the dark blue overskirt showed more of her embroidered underskirt. She wasn't getting married for another year or two, and she intended to enjoy what little freedom she had—even if her tutor always nattered on about how trust was fragile and she must be "trustworthy" and "virtuous," or the kingdom would go up in flames. Ridiculous. What good was being a princess if you couldn't get what you wanted?

She straightened, her fingers drumming against the bench. Iram was late, and she didn't have forever. She'd been glad for the extra time when she'd been struggling with her hair, but now she was ready. As soon as dinner was over, her mother would send someone to inquire how her "headache" was.

Had he forgotten? Or was it a ploy?

If he hoped to gain an advantage with this game, he was sorely mistaken. She had been mistreated and mocked enough to last hundreds of lifetimes. Ilane raised her chin, a steely glint in her eyes. Maybe she'd refuse to see him when he got here.

The room turned gray as she contemplated another evening of boredom.

No. After all, far better to turn his game upside down and witness his reaction.

A black cat with golden eyes meowed and put his paws on her lap.

"Jerod! You'll muss my dress." She shook a finger at him. "I'll pet you, but only if you keep your claws away from me."

He meowed in response and then purred as she picked him up and scratched his chin.

"Where is that man?" she exclaimed. "He knows the Queen will finish dinner before long."

Ilane frowned. Had Iram agreed to come? She had told him she planned to skip dinner, and he had implied he'd be interested in spending that time together, but . . . maybe something had come up.

Jerod nuzzled her motionless hand. "I know, I know. I'm still petting you," she told him. "I could sneak out to him—if he isn't ignoring me."

Heat flooded her cheeks, but at least it would relieve her boredom. She pulled her necklace out of her dress and fiddled with the ring on it. The heavy ring was tarnished silver and much too uncomfortable to wear on her hand all day. Her mother had decreed it far too ugly to be worn at all—thus Ilane had put it on a long, thin chain and wore it every, single day; her mother had lost the right to have any say in her life years ago.

Jerod batted at the ring and then snagged the chain with a claw, twisting it around his paw.

"Now don't do that, silly. Here." She took the chain off and began trying to disentangle him.

Jerod, however, had other ideas. He jumped to the floor and dragged the ring across it.

"Jerod, stop," Ilane said, grabbing at the chain. She missed.

Jerod backed up against the wall, still pulling the chain. She lunged forward, tripped on her dress, and fell into the wall. Rather than holding her weight, the section of wall gave at her touch, swinging open onto a dark tunnel.

Unable to stop herself, Ilane fell through the opening, her palms smacking against the stone floor. She choked as an onslaught of dust filled her lungs. With a sharp click, the wall shut behind her. Though it was pitch black, she knew where she'd landed: the Ways. She had hidden here countless times, escaping her tutor as a child, at least until the last time when—no, she refused to think about that.

She drew herself up and wrapped her stinging palms around her knees. Somewhere nearby Jerod purred. Steadying herself, she felt in the direction of his purring. Her searching fingers brushed the necklace with its ring. She picked it up and put it on.

"Jerod, come here! Now!" she demanded, her voice catching in her throat.

The purring didn't skip a beat, but neither did it come any closer.

"Fine!" She slid backward. Her dress would be filthy after this.

A blank wall met her questing hands. That was the main problem with the Ways—entrances appeared and disappeared at will. If she hadn't known better than to believe in magic, she would have fancied the entrances and hallways moved like the limbs of some behemothic creature. A frisson of fear crept along her spine. The last time she'd been in here, she'd barely escaped. And, despite the number of times she'd found herself here, few people considered the myth of the Ways credible. No one would find her.

Ilane beat her fist against the wall as the memory of that last time resurfaced. "I command you to open!" she said, trying vainly to suppress the bubble of panic creeping up her throat.

The wall remained obdurate.

Jerod continued to purr.

"What have you gotten me into, you stupid cat?" she hissed.

A momentary break in Jerod's purring signaled he'd heard her.

She leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and tried to quiet her mind. Railing at the cat wouldn't get her anywhere. After all, it wasn't as though he'd planned to get her into such a fix—she'd fallen back into her childhood habit of treating him like a person, rather than the beast he was.

Which entrance was this anyway? If it was one she and Jerod had used before, there should be a lantern and flame-striker nearby.

Ilane felt around until her fingers brushed something soft, something not stone: a leather bag. Fumbling, she lit the lantern it contained and held it aloft.

The Ways, despite their age and disuse, never required repair. The rest of the castle forever needed something done to prevent it from "caving in about their heads," as the Queen put it, so Ilane was thankful she wouldn't have to worry about the floor collapsing and landing her somewhere untoward.

Jerod sat a few feet away, his eyes shining in the light. He turned and walked down the passage.

Ilane sighed. There was little point in waiting—this entrance might not open soon, or ever—and, since one way was as good as another, she might as well follow her cat's lead. She kilted up her skirts and followed him, lantern in one hand and the other hand extended in front of her to break a path through the cobwebs. Before long, they reached a steep stair. She steadied herself on the wall, wishing good repair extended to cleanliness. Between the dust and cobwebs, she was going to be a disaster by the time she got out.

The stone wall was cool and dry to her touch, the large stone blocks with their thin tracery of vine-like carvings solid beneath her hand. She fingered the carvings. She'd never understood why someone had carved such intricate details where no one ever saw, but then again she was in the Ways—little made sense about them.

A right turn here, ignore this passageway, go left at the T junction. Ilane tried to pay attention—years of using the Ways had made her well aware how easy it would be to get lost—but she was getting tired and her brain was too muddled to figure out where they'd started from. Instead, she studied the passageways themselves. Had she been down any of them? Hopefully, none of them were the passageway, the one she refused to think about. More likely, they were ones she had never used or ones that had been a haven. Her lips quirked as she remembered playing hide and seek, and exploring, and reading down here with Jerod, where she was safe from everyone's disapproval.

Jerod halted, and she almost trod on him. "What are you doing now?" she demanded.

He turned and stared balefully at her until she quieted, then sat down and began to wash his paws.

The lantern flickered. Should she extinguish it to conserve oil? What was Jerod waiting for? Ilane considered sitting next to him, but what if she needed to leave in a hurry? Still, they'd been walking for some time, and she needed to rest. She almost leaned against a nearby wall, but then shuddered. The last time she'd tried that—no one needed to relive that kind of experience. Had the gods, or fate, or whoever, had a hand in that day? She sincerely hoped today would not be another "touched day," as the commoners called it.

Jerod paused and studied the intersecting tunnel. Ilane turned, straining to make out what had caught his attention. After a few moments, a small light moved towards them. She ran her fingers through her hair and tried to straighten her dress, then took a deep breath, reminding herself that she was a princess—she could handle anyone. Jerod remained where he was but took up his purr.

A woman strode towards them, her skirts and cloak swinging in tempo with her gait. Strange. She'd never met anyone here.

Jerod gave an urgent meow, and the woman replied in a lyrical language Ilane had never heard.

Upon reaching Ilane, she pulled back the hood of her cloak, exposing elegant features with green eyes and honey blond hair.

Ilane gasped. "Lady Sarah! What are you doing here?"

Her mother's newest lady-in-waiting quirked an eyebrow. She didn't appear nearly as vapid as usual. "Well, aren't you a sight?"

Ilane flushed, then raised her chin. One simply did not speak to the Princess of Teloria in such a manner. She graced the woman with her frostiest smile. "Yes, it's quite dirty here. May I ask what you're doing here?"

Jerod gave a loud meow and took several steps down the tunnel.

Lady Sarah turned her attention to him and replied in the unfamiliar language, then refocused on Ilane. "All right, Your Highness, I'm rescuing you. If you would do me the honor of accompanying me." She put a firm hand on Ilane's arm.

Ilane jerked her arm away. "How dare you! What do you mean 'rescue'?"

The woman glowered at her. "We don't have much time—certainly not enough for childishness."

Ilane remained silent, holding the woman's gaze and waiting for her to answer.

The woman tapped a foot. "I don't have time to explain now." She glanced up to where Jerod stood. "Jerod trusts me," she said, as though that somehow settled it.

Ilane suppressed an eye roll. "I'm not sure I would consider a cat's recommendation an adequate reference."

"Well, you should in this case. Do you want to stay here?"

"I am perfectly capable of finding my own way out," Ilane said coldly.

Lady Sarah inclined her head. "Very well. I'll leave you to it." She turned and headed back the way she'd come.

"Wait."

She paused. "Yes?"

"Leave me some oil."

Lady Sarah raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Well, Princess, I don't have any extra, so I'm afraid I can't do that. You are welcome to come with me, or you can stay here and wait for someone else while your lantern dies."

Ilane thought furiously. She was almost positive she could convince Lady Sarah to take her where she wanted to go, given enough time. Perhaps accompanying her would be the wisest course. And, if she hurried, she might make it back to her room before the Queen brought her absence up to the King. "I see. Then I shall walk with you for a time."

Lady Sarah gave her an ironic curtsy and turned on her heel.

Ilane bit back a rebuke and followed her. "How did you get in here?" she asked in a neutral tone.

"Carefully."

Silence followed this pronouncement, and Ilane tried to devise another way to get Lady Sarah talking. That had always been the first step in nudging someone—if she talked to them long enough, they came to see things from her point of view. "How did you know I'd be here?"

"Jerod told me."

Ilane forced her mouth to stay closed, despite the temptation to gape at the woman. She'd run into persons lacking in common sense and had often considered the Queen's ladies-in-waiting prime candidates for borderline insanity—they'd have to be to stay interested in the castle gossip after their years of residence—but conversing with her cat was past the border: Lady Sarah was touched in the upper works. As she was alone with the woman, it behooved her to go along with Lady Sarah's delusion. Ilane smiled winsomely at her. "I do so appreciate you rescuing me—I would have been trapped here for ages. I'll make sure you're suitably rewarded. How soon will we reach an exit?"

Lady Sarah snorted. "I see what you mean," she said to Jerod.

Ilane frowned and then began again. "We've gotten off to a bad start—I was a bit harsh, but I do have enemies and they would pay a large sum to anyone who procured me. A princess can't be too careful."

Lady Sarah slowed. "That's true. What were you doing tonight? And don't tell me you had a headache or whatever tale you told your poor mother—a girl doesn't dress up to be sick."

Ilane paused. Lady Sarah had appeared to fit right in with the rest of the Queen's featherbrained ladies-in-waiting, but perhaps she wasn't as empty-headed as the rest. "I don't believe that's any of your business," she said loftily.

Lady Sarah grimaced. "Sneaking out with Iram again, eh? Is that wise?"

"I don't believe that's any of your business."

"I suppose you don't. How well do you know him?"

"I don't believe that's any of your business."

Lady Sarah threw up her hands. "I told you I'm not good with spoiled teenagers!" she exploded to the ceiling.

Jerod stopped short and meowed. "Ilane, Seraphina is here to help—listen to her," a warm male voice full of urgency said.

Ilane stopped too. She glanced back over her shoulder. The voice had almost sounded as though it was inside her mind, but that was ridiculous. Who had spoken?

Jerod walked over to her and put his paws on her dress. "Ilane, listen."

She backed away. No, the voice couldn't be coming from Jerod; he was a cat! She must have fallen asleep waiting for Iram, or misheard, or—or something.

Lady Sarah grinned. "Not used to him talking? Well, don't worry, you're not any crazier than I am."

Small comfort. Ilane put a hand out in front of her. "Jerod? Who"—she swallowed—"what are you?"

"I'm an allapomorph. Now, stop trying to wrap Seraphina around your little finger and listen to her for a moment."

"But—but how can you be an allapomorph? They aren't real, nor are they cats," she said feebly.

"Allapomorphs are shape-shifters. We can go into this later—after we've gotten you somewhere safe."

Ilane shook her head, trying to make sense of the creature in front of her. She supposed most myths were based in some truth—at least that's what she'd found in her studies. But allapomorphs? If even half of what she'd heard was true, they bordered on magical and she was too old to be taken in by fairy stories. She pushed that aside in favor of the more pressing issue. "Somewhere safe?"

"Yes." Lady Sarah hesitated. "Iram Levesque is your enemy."

"That's not possible," Ilane said flatly. At least not without her realizing it. Iram might like his games, but that didn't make him an enemy.

Lady Sarah scowled, studying Ilane. After appearing to come to a decision, she said something else to Jerod.

"It's not polite to say things in an unfamiliar language in front of someone, and it isn't encouraging me to trust you," Ilane commented.

Lady Sarah turned her attention to Ilane. "I said we'd have to do things Jerod's way—I'd hoped we wouldn't have to take the time or the risk, but needs must." She sighed gustily. "Follow me," she said, throwing a glance at Ilane and striding down the tunnel.

Jerod darted out in front of them.

"Where are we going?" Ilane asked, following along behind.

"You won't believe me, but I'd wager you would believe Iram," Seraphina said.

Ilane crossed her arms. "That depends. If it's not coerced out of him or twisted to mean something else, I might accept it. But since Iram has been nothing but a gentleman and comes highly recommended, I doubt you would be able to find anything. After all, my father has allowed him to stay here for a reason."

"Indeed. But it's not the reason you think it is."

Ilane raised an eyebrow even though Lady Sarah couldn't see it.

Jerod meowed.

Lady Sarah halted. "This is close enough. Hold still," she threw at Ilane.

"Why?" Ilane demanded.

"Before we can visit Iram, I'll have to disguise your aura," the woman said.

"What are you talking about?"

Lady Sarah's jaw clenched. "Just stand still and be quiet."

Ilane shook her head. "Not until you explain exactly what you are going to do to my person."

"Look at that! She does have some common sense," Lady Sarah said sarcastically. "Now if only you used it every once in a while," she muttered. "It's a spell to keep anyone from seeing you clearly, Princess."

"A spell?" Ilane scoffed. "What do you take me for? An illiterate peasant? Magic doesn't exist," she recited. The alternative was something she refused to consider.

Lady Sarah snorted. "Just like the Ways and talking cats don't exist. We're running out of time. Now hold still!"

"You can trust Seraphina—" Jerod began.

"Who is Seraphina?" Ilane demanded.

"I am," Lady Sarah said, "I go by Sera when the situation suggests it."

"Ilane, let her do this," Jerod said.

Ilane twitched as the voice inserted itself into her mind once more. "I doubt I'll ever get used to that," she said to him. She eyed Lady—Seraphina for a long moment, then sighed. She was indulging the woman's delusions for now, she reminded herself. "All right, you may attempt your"—she waved a hand—"spell."

Seraphina muttered, making a circular motion with one index finger.

A faint, flickering shimmer danced at the edge of Ilane's vision as though a mirage had appeared in the tunnel. Turning her head, she discovered it surrounded her. She closed her eyes for a moment, hoping the flicker would have disappeared when she opened them—she'd have a headache before long if it stayed, if she hadn't imagined it.

She opened her eyes.

It was still there.

"What is that?" Ilane demanded. A crazy woman's "spell" shouldn't be able to do anything, let alone be visible.

Seraphina's eyes widened. "You can see something?"

Ilane frowned and squinted at the disturbance. It was not dissipating. She wasn't that susceptible to a hoax, was she?

"Just describe the spell," Jerod requested in an amused tone.

Ilane huffed. "Fine. It's—like the air above a fire. It's making everything wavery. Did you truly do something? And how long will it last?"

Seraphina scowled at Jerod. "You didn't say anything about this."

Jerod meowed, and Ilane wished she was privy to what he'd said to Seraphina. She hated when people talked about her behind her back. After allowing them to continue their conversation for another few moments, Ilane cleared her throat. "Excuse me. What did you do, and how long will it last?" she asked in firm tones.

Seraphina appraised her for several long moments. "I told you. I did a spell to make sure no one notices you. Your appearance is unchanged, but you'll be unremarkable to everyone else—so ordinary they won't pay attention. In addition, it will mask your aura from anyone who can seek auras. It'll last until I take it off, but the visual side effect should go away soon."

Ilane returned the look. She still wasn't sure it was any more than charlatanism, but for now, she would pretend acceptance. "Very well."

Jerod meowed again, and Ilane frowned at him. She was just about done with being excluded from whatever conversation they were having.

Seraphina nodded. "This way," she said, pushing on one of the many identical stones in the tunnel. A section of wall slid to one side revealing a smaller tunnel. "And keep your voice down," she whispered, putting the lantern into a holder on the other side of the wall and moving forward.

Ilane stepped through the doorway and moved down the tunnel. A faint light glowed in the distance. Following Seraphina, she came to a dead end where lit holes pierced the stone wall. She walked up to the holes, realizing they were eye-width apart. Her lips quirked up as Iram's guest chamber appeared—hopefully this would be enough to settle Seraphina's ridiculous concerns so the woman would help her find an exit. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness, she saw Iram sitting at the table, staring into space as though he were contemplating the mysteries of existence.

After a few moments, he stood and stretched. Moving to the center of the room, his hands fluttered in an arc and he muttered something indistinguishable. The shadows in the room darkened and grew as though they had taken on a life of their own. The candle flames dimmed. A pillar of darkness coalesced in the center of the room.

Iram prostrated himself before the pillar. "My lord," he said.

"What is your status?" a voice asked, the sound like the scales of a snake rubbing up against one another.

"Everything is in place, my lord," he said. "Everyone at dinner tonight ingested the poison—"

Ilane inhaled sharply. Poison? Everyone? Jerod brushed against her ankles, and she remembered where she was. No matter how much she might wish to fall apart, this was not the time to do so. Years ago, she'd learned to compartmentalize her feelings when they were inconvenient, and now she did so ruthlessly.

"Everyone will be ill for some time," Iram continued. "It's the perfect opportunity to get the Princess out of harm's way—"

Ilane's knees turned to water, and she rested a hand on the wall. Not dead. She took a breath, forcing the emotions to dissipate, then straightened.

"I have done what you commanded: I am King Lewis' closest advisor and so the Princess will turn to me. I've made certain of that. In fact, she's waiting for me right now. Princess Ilane will be yours within the month."

Ilane shuddered. She belonged to no one! Least of all a madman.

"Good," the voice replied. "I will expect her within a month then."

"Yes, my lord," Iram said, remaining prostrate.

The shadowy column shrank, compacting in on itself, until there was but a marble of deepest dark. The small cloud circled Iram, then, gathering speed, darted into him and disappeared. After a moment, Iram stood. He sighed. "Time to go entrance the wench again. The things I do to"—he said, walking out of hearing range.

Ilane's eyes narrowed. Fortunately, Iram got out the door before she erupted. "That—that—peasant!"

Seraphina glared at her. "Shh! We're not safe here. Come." She turned and walked back to her lantern, then opened the door in the wall. After they were back in the main passageway, she turned to Ilane. "Now do you believe me?" she asked archly.

Ilane took a breath, tucking all the things she wanted to say, all the things she wouldn't show to anyone, into the depths of her soul and then freed the anger that begged for expression. She waited another heartbeat to collect her tattered dignity. She would not show weakness. She would not.

"That—that—scoundrel!" Ilane said, stomping her foot. "How dare he call me a wench and say I was his! I'm not his! I was playing with him!"

"Of course you were," Jerod soothed. "What type of poison did he use?" Seraphina asked Jerod."I have no idea. This is the first I've heard about it," Jerod said, rubbing his head against Ilane's leg. Seraphina gave a sharp nod. "Regardless, there's nothing we can do now." She turned to Ilane. "The thing to do now is to get you away from him before he can capture you."

Ilane drew herself up. "I disagree," she said.

"Of course you do," Seraphina muttered.

"The thing to do is to call the palace healer and to command the captain of the guard to remove Iram from the castle."

"I know you want to help, but what would the captain do about a magician?" Jerod asked, sitting on his haunches and holding her gaze.

"I doubt shadows are all that dangerous. I'm sure we can get a maid to light an extra torch if need be," Ilane said with a smirk. Iram's tangible weapons were far more worrying than any pretend magic.

"Magicians can do much more than that," Seraphina said, hands on her hips.

Ilane crossed her arms over her chest. "Such as?"

Seraphina glared at her. "A magician is limited only by his power and imagination. Iram has access to more power than you can fathom. Even if you could chase him from the castle, he could return and attack you at any point," she said. "You'll have the advantage if you leave the castle now—it'll keep you safe and give us a chance to figure out what's going on."

"Would I go along with anything that wasn't in your best interest?" Jerod added.

Ilane threw her hands in the air. "How would I know? Apparently, I know nothing about you, despite the fact that you've been my cat for the past seven years! How do I even know you're an allapomorph?"

Jerod blurred, and a wolf stood where her cat had been.

Ilane stood there, staring at him, her mouth open an unladylike amount. She forced herself to close it. This couldn't be happening. She closed her eyes for a moment and bit the inside of her cheek. The pain felt real enough. Not a dream? But how—?

Put that aside, she instructed herself. Focus on the now: was it safe to trust him or Seraphina?

"Good enough?" Jerod asked. "Now, Iram will raise the alarm before long. We need to get going."

Ilane stared into his eyes, trying to measure the beast—man—person in front of her. Iram was an unknown quantity: she'd only known him for a few months, and, evidently, he'd been working against her that whole time. At least she had years of Jerod not trying to kill her. She gave a slow nod. "I assume you can find the way out," she said stiffly to Seraphina.

Seraphina snorted. "I've spent more time in these tunnels than you can imagine; yes, I can find the way out. Does that mean you've seen reason?" she asked Ilane.

Jerod gave a short bark and then shifted back into his cat form. "There's no need for that, Seraphina."

"Oh, all right," Seraphina grumbled. "This way," she said, striding down the tunnel in front of them.