“I guess this is goodbye,” I said.
The grimalkin watched me with half-lidded eyes.
“I wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”
Still no response, but he lifted his nose as if catching a stray scent on the breeze.
“You know, you could come with us.” I snuck out my hand and stroked the silky fur on his shoulder. Grim didn’t shy away.
“There’s no reason for you to stay here. Mason has a big barn that our troll friends are renovating. You’ll love it. There’s a forest for you to hunt in, and—”
“I cannot go with you.” He sidestepped out of my reach, and I let my hand drop.
“I must face the Stewards and pay for my crimes.”
“But you’ll pay with your life.”
“Perhaps. But at least someone will remember me.”
He butted me gently with his head and rubbed himself along my shin from his crown to the tip of his tail. So like a cat. Just when you’re completely frustrated with them, they go and do something unbearably cute.
“Without the sanction of the Stewards, I wouldn’t survive to take a breath if I stepped into your world” Grim said.
“So, let’s get their sanction.”
The cat flattened his ears. “One does not simply negotiate with the gods.”
“Maybe one doesn’t. But I do. I’m coming with you.”
I rose before he could argue and faced Mason, ready to fend off his objections. But when I laid out my arguments, he nodded.
“Fine. Let’s go see these Stewards.”
“Nuh-uh. You have to go back and take care of Nori and Jacoby.” And the One-eyed Father only knew what kind of mischief Princess would get up to without supervision.
“Not going to happen.” Mason crossed his arms. “You go, I go.”
I sighed. I really didn’t want to have this conversation now, but it was a long time coming. I picked through my thoughts carefully, trying to parse together a coherent argument that wouldn’t put him on the defensive.
“You’re being ridiculous.”
Okay, parsing wasn’t my strength.
“Ever since I broke your curse, you seem to think you need to keep me under surveillance twenty-four-seven.” He opened his mouth to speak, but I held up my hand. “I’m not finished. I survived seventy-nine years on various worlds without you. I don’t need you to babysit me.”
His eyebrows lowered, and he studied me with quiet intensity, eyes filled with a storm of pique and pain. I pinched the bridge of my nose, closed my eyes, and ground down the last ridges of my molars.
“Let me try that again. I understand how hard it was for you to be forced onto the sidelines when I fought Gerard and Polina. But you don’t have a debt to pay because of that.”
He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. “That’s how you would see it. And I know you well enough that nothing I will say will change your mind. Kyra Greene is on a mission.”
He grinned that little flirty half-grin that made me want to kiss him and smack him. Not necessarily in that order.
“Go take on the Nether gods. But be safe and come home to me. That’s all I ask. I love you.”
Oh, damn. Now I felt like a tool. My eyes betrayed me by leaking all over my face and he gathered me into his arms.
“I love you too,” I said, muffled against his chest, so it came out more like “I lmf mootoo.”
He held my face in his strong hands and wiped away my tears with his thumbs. His eyes raked over me, like he was scraping away one last memory.
Then he stepped toward the door.
A raucous cawing filled the air and a flock of harpies landed on the grass before the Life Tree. One harpy held a glowing scroll in her stumpy human hands.
“Kyra Greene of Terra?” Her voice was brittle as burned glass.
“That’s me.” I stepped forward, putting Mason and the others behind me.
“You have broken the rule of life and will answer to the Tribunal of Stewards.” Behind her, the other harpies cackled like a murder of crows on a bloodstained battlefield.