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All Cats Are Royalty

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Theio stays small, most of the time, so that she can hide in the collar of Maia’s tunic, or tuck herself into his braid. Tiny birds, lizards, even sometimes insects, anything unobtrusive enough that Setheris and Riän will not notice her. Not that even in his cups Setheris is lost enough to propriety to touch her, but still - far better to be safe than sorry, and neither Maia nor Theio wishes to repeat the dreadful day that Riän caught Theio - then in lizard form - and held her in her beak while Maia pleaded, on his knees, for Riän not to hurt her.

It was not so when Chenelo still lived. Then, Theio would take any form that pleased her, eagles and serpents and hounds, but most often a great grey cat nearly as large as Maia was then, yellow-eyed and soft to the touch. The cat, Chenelo told Maia often and again, was the symbol of the Drazhada, and that Theio chose to take that form so often was a mark of Maia’s royal blood.

Theio does not take that form around Setheris. Neither she nor Maia dares to find out what he would say, if she should look like the daemon of a prince in truth, and not a relegated, half-forgotten, misbegotten son.

Theio is a tiny serpent, wound about Maia’s neck, when the courier Csevet and his sleek fox Renardis bring the altogether astonishing news of Maia’s ascension to the throne. She is a sparrow, hidden beneath his palm, when Cala Athmaza and Lieutenant Beshelar become his nohecharei. She is a tiny hedgehog as he faces the Corazhas for the first time; she is a falcon, bating fury, when Maia refuses to abdicate to Chavar and Sheveän.

And when Maia decides that he will see the bridge built, come what may, she takes a larger form than she has in years. A cat, grey as stormclouds or Maia’s skin, large enough that Maia cannot carry her on his shoulder but must bear her in his arms or let her walk beside him, long-furred and sleek and golden-eyed. She is beautiful, and Maia tells her so.

She does not shift again.

On his wedding night, she curls around Csethiro’s keen-eyed eagle, bold Mura of the piercing gaze, and Maia, watching them with Csethiro asleep upon his shoulder, knows that Theio has settled at last. His soul is visible for all to see: the empress of cat-kind, deadly and beautiful, imposing and gentle, sweet-natured and sharp-clawed.

He thinks his mother would be proud to see his soul rise up so proud and beautiful at last.