‘You didn't answer all my questions,' Maeve said, having just realised this in the silence that had followed her comment.
The panther looked uncomfortable. ‘In your mind, there's a world of creatures you have no idea about. It's your ignorance of these that will help you.'
‘That's ... really confusing,' Maeve murmured. ‘And when exactly is Fate arriving?'
‘Soon, I think. Which reminds me - don't get mad at her.'
Maeve laughed, the noise coming out as something between a purr and a deep rumbling growl.
‘Why would I get mad at her?'
‘She can be quite annoying sometimes. At least, I think so. But if you let her get to you, you'll regret it.'
‘You sound so much like this is real... And why do you care so much, anyway?'
The panther shrugged: a gesture that looked strange in an animal.
‘I'm an omniscient panther who wants to protect you.'
‘Aw, thanks. I'd definitely love to have a friend like you.'
‘I'm sure someone must have inspired me,' he thought to her. He was trying to be reassuring, Maeve knew, but he didn't sound very convincing.
She sighed. ‘Yeah, I guess. Though it could just be a guy I don't know I have a crush on, who I'd like to be different.'
‘I'm sure you'll find the right person.' For some reason, the panther sounded sad, as though he knew some reason she wouldn't. Being an omniscient panther meant he probably did and this depressed Maeve.
‘Fate's coming,' she reminded him half-heartedly.
‘Oh yeah. Well, two other things you need to have - or at least need to appear to have - are intelligence and integrity.'
‘Integrity? Isn't that like a massive combination of honour and honesty and values? How do I prove I have that?'
‘She'll ask you questions. Just concentrate on not seeming shallow and knowing the difference between right and wrong.'
‘Oh, okay then. So ... it's like one big test of my character?'
‘That's a great way to put it.' The panther's tone was flatteringly sincere. Maeve forgot her earlier dejection.
‘Thanks.' If she'd been human, Maeve might have blushed. As it was, she averted her eyes from the panther's steady gaze. ‘Was there anything else?'
‘She'll tell you if she wants you to know more. Oh, hang on - she's my queen. So I'll be calling her ‘Your Majesty'. While you don't have to give her quite the same courtesy, you should still be fairly respectful. A curtsey won't do you any harm. Sorry, not curtsey. Um, get down on your paws - like this.'
Maeve watched as he demonstrated going into a sphinx-like position and bowing his head. The sight of him like that troubled her for some reason she couldn't explain, nor even define to herself.
‘Get back up,' she whispered, her thoughts hushed.
The panther looked up at her and she could tell he was wordlessly questioning the tone of her mental voice.
‘I don't know why - I don't like seeing you do that. Please get up.'
The panther slowly stood up. ‘Are you okay, Maeve?' he asked.
‘I - I'm not sure.'
Just then, there was a tinkling of bells and Maeve didn't have time to consider her strange reaction to his pose anymore. She looked up and saw Pegasus. Literally: there was a white, winged horse above the meadow.
It drifted down, the feathered limbs rising and falling gracefully. And then it landed, directly in front of Maeve and a young girl jumped off. She had long silvery blonder hair, light blue eyes and a tall, slender figure.
‘Your Majesty,' the panther automatically said, getting back into that position which so bizarrely discomfited Maeve.
Nevertheless, she copied the action and gazed down at the grass, trying to ignore the fact that Fate appeared to be little more than a child.
"Evening, Perry," Fate said jovially, appearing to be addressing the panther. Perry stood up, Maeve following suit.
‘Perry?' Maeve thought, confused.
Fate turned to her and gave a light chuckle.
"What, don't you know? Perry's his name, silly. Did you not think he had one?"
Her tone was incredibly patronising and Maeve felt utterly embarrassed.
‘Oh, I guess I never considered it,' she mumbled.
Fate laughed. "Silly Maeve."
The surprise from Fate knowing her name helped her ignore the fact she was being treated like a child and her next question was "How do you know my name?"
Fate tapped the side of her nose. "That would be telling. So Maeve, what do you know about Peregrine?"
Perry sighed, as if he didn't like what Fate had called him - what Maeve assumed to be his full name.
‘He's a ... an omniscient panther,' she replied, worried she was going to sound stupid again.
Fate's laughs were even louder, making Maeve want to curl up in a little ball.
"An omniscient panther! Oh my! That is funny!" It was quite bemusing for Maeve to watch her. However young she looked, she spoke in a very adult-like manner. As she stopped laughing, she said "He's not a real panther, you know. Just like you aren't a real leopard. And if anyone's ‘omniscient' around here, it's me."
‘But...,' Maeve thought, confused; ‘why did he say he was an omniscient panther?" Hurt, she turned to Perry and thought ‘I trusted you.'
"Aw, see what you've done, Perry?" Fate asked. "You've hurt her feelings. Why did you lie to her?"
Perry's mental voice was barely audible. ‘I wanted her to be in a position where she could have a normal life, Your Highness. So I told her it was a dream and made up some nonsense.'
‘It's not a dream?' Maeve asked, horrified. ‘This is actually reality?!'
Fate looked sympathetic. ‘Yes, dear. You're in the form of a snow leopard and I'm really Fate." Looking sternly at Perry, she said "I think you had better explain."
Perry didn't look at Maeve as he spoke, afraid of the look he'd see in her eyes.
‘I ... I'm a creature. A creature of the night.' He couldn't bear to say the actual name. ‘Sometimes, we supernatural beings are ... bound to a human. Her Majesty-" he bowed in the panther way towards Fate - "controls this. I ... identified the ... feeling, I guess you'd call it, ... lying dormant in your ... - inside you. Only the Predetermined Preternatural Partner can do that. So you ..., if I'm correct, belong to me. And I to you.' He hesitated before his last word. ‘Forever.'
"Thank you, Perry," Her Majesty said.
She approached Maeve, whose mind was in a great daze. Perry tensed. She was starting the Testing. And Maeve didn't even know. In fact, Maeve wasn't really in a state where she could think straight.
"It's such a pleasure to meet you, Maeve," Fate said. "To welcome you into our world. May I shake your paw?"
Maeve started to raise her right one but then she glanced at Perry. Her mind instantly cleared. He felt her reception of something related to him. Strange: he wasn't transmitting anything. But she put her paw down and murmured ‘I'm sorry: I'm just ... too bewildered to take this all in at the moment.'
Fate nodded, smiling, pretending to be nice. If only Maeve knew...
"Of course. Can I just ask: what's one thing that's important to you in life?"
Perry prayed that the mysterious force which had sent her his thoughts last time would continue to guide her.
And sure enough, after a few seconds of deep and careful thought, Maeve answered ‘Morality.' It was the truth, as well.
Perry could hug her. He wouldn't, of course: that would be most improper in feline form and probably throw her off guard completely.
Fate was now asking "If you had to answer honestly, would you say that the world is a wonderful place?"
Internally, Maeve frowned.
‘No,' she murmured with her thoughts. It upset her to say this but she was being truthful and she knew that it would sound a bit ridiculous and childish if she pretended that the world was perfect and fantastic, and shone like a star.
Fate nodded, looking pensive.
"Okay, last question: if you were attacked by a shapeshifter, which one of the following would be most useful to you: a dagger, a magic crystal or a tuft of fur/ feathers/ scales of that animal?"
Perry, as an inhuman creature himself, knew the answer. A dagger was completely useless because shapeshifters were supernatural animals and magic crystals didn't work unless you were a witch. Surprisingly, if you wore some part of the shapeshifter's form (e.g. a tooth necklace or a piece of clothing made of its fur), it couldn't harm you. It was just the way it worked. But it didn't matter that he knew. In fact, it worked to Maeve's advantage that she didn't know.
‘Er, ... I don't know,' Maeve thought.
"Guess," Fate said.
"Um... a dagger?"
Fate beamed. "Excellent. You're intelligent, you've integrity and there's a healthy does of ignorance about the supernatural in you which is always nice to see."
She turned to Perry. "You can take her home now. Mind you don't lie to her."
She started heading back towards her winged mare.
‘Your Highness,' he called.
"Yes?" she replied, without stopping. She mounted the horse gracefully, earning admiring looks from Maeve.
‘Is it for definite, then? That we're Fated?'
"Yes, Peregrine. You really must have more faith in your senses. They're not enhanced for nothing, you know."
She flew away, looking as if she found him mildly tiresome.
Perry turned back to Maeve and sighed. ‘Well.'
Maeve gazed steadily back at him. ‘This doesn't change the fact that you lied. Not the link, not anything. You're to take me home and tell me everything. And then you can go as far away from me as possible because frankly, I don't want to be in a relationship with a ‘creature of the night'. D'you get me?'
Perry sighed. ‘Yes, I do. You're a very sensible girl, Maeve. And well done for passing Fate's test.'
Maeve didn't say anything.
Perry walked over to a tree and mysteriously started to climb it. As his hind paws left the ground, he was enveloped in a pale blue light which obscured his form.
Thinking he was leaving in some supernatural manner, Maeve shouted out ‘Hey!' with her thoughts.
But the cerulean beams faded and revealed the man Maeve had seen in the park. Except that he had massive, night-dark wings.
Still, Maeve cried out ‘You!'
Perry, whose fingers seemed to dig into the bark and who seemed to be strong enough to hold his own body weight, looked over his winds at Maeve, his expression unfathomable.
Jutting out over his bottom lip were two sharp, pointed fangs.
Maeve screamed in her head. She turned and started to run.
But then there was the sound of air rhythmically being displaced above and glancing up, Maeve saw Perry silhouetted against the sky, flying.
Maeve ran faster, surprising herself with the joy of the movement but Perry swooped down so that he was directly above her before picking her up easily in his arms.
Maeve screamed again but this time the noise was physically audible as she found herself in human form. She took advantage of this: screaming and screaming again. But Perry growled above her and the world suddenly went black.