Kieran wiped the sweat off his brow and hefted the crates back on his shoulder. Of all the days for Marta to need the donkey, he thought ruefully, this was not a good one. He pushed through the gate in front of a cozy cottage and looked down at his scuffed boots and muddied trousers. There wasn’t much he could do about his appearance at this point, but he still put down the crate and ran his fingers through his hair before knocking.
After a moment, the door cracked open and dark blue eyes peered out at him. Kieran grinned like an idiot.
“Good day, Miss Maeve,” he said, relishing the way her smooth name seemed to roll off the tongue. “I’ve got your eggs here.” The woman opened the door a little more, revealing her dark brown curls swept to one side and a forest green dress. She was breathtaking, he thought. From the soles of her feet to the crown of her head, he could discern no blemish or imperfection.
“Thank you, Master…” Her lilting voice trailed off in a question.
“Kieran,” he happily supplied. It did not pass his notice that she had forgotten his name again. “Owner of Waters Farms, the best farm within twenty leagues of Easthaven.”
“Yes, Master Kieran,” she said. It took him a moment to notice her outstretched hand. She coughed, and he jerked back to attention.
“Ah, here you are,” he said, handing over the small basket from inside one of the crates. She took it, and for the briefest second as he passed it off to her, their hands touched. He could have sworn that the world burst with more color right then. But then she ducked back into the cottage, shutting the door again.
“Mooning after Mistress Maeve never did anyone any good, so you best leave off,” called a gruff voice from across the street. Kieran shut the gate in front of the cottage and looked up to see Anders, the village blacksmith, smirking at him. “You might have better luck with Witch Eviline.” Kieran wanted to wipe that obnoxious smirk off his face.
“You’re far better suited for the witch than I am,” he called back, and turned away before the man could reply.
Lugging the now empty crates back down the main road, he spied a clump of men gathered outside Maeve’s garden gate and knew something was off. His interest was piqued, and Kieran walked into the midst of the hullabaloo.
“Oi,” he said to no one in particular, “what’s all this about?”
The man nearby didn’t look at him, just thrust out a finger, and Kieran’s eyes followed it. Posted on the garden gate was a sign with writing in ornate penmanship. He put down the crates, then pushed through the thick bodies to see what the sign said. He strained his neck and eyes to read:
Mistress Maeve invites all the eligible men of Easthaven village to compete for her hand in marriage! The rules are as simple as they are few: whoever unlocks the front door to her home by sundown Saturday with the key tied around her cat’s neck shall be the husband of Mistress Maeve. However, should they fail, all the eligible men must cease pursuing her.
Kieran realized that his mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut. Maeve, the most incredible, beautiful, clever woman he had ever laid eyes on, was going to marry one of them. It was Thursday today, so there wasn’t any time to waste. He cast his eyes around the group of men standing there and saw several others doing the same. Sizing each other up.
“Well,” said Anders loudly from the midst of the group, “I think we all know who’s got the cat in the bag.” He flashed a cocky grin and flexed his considerable biceps. A couple of his cronies snickered. Kieran lifted his eyes heavenward.
Then, as if on cue, a silky cat as dark as the night sky slinked around the corner of Maeve’s cottage. Kieran saw the silver key at once, hanging from a scarlet ribbon tied about the cat’s neck. He saw several other men notice it too. Perched on the cottage’s stoop, the cat lazily licked her paws without a care in the world. For a split second, the group of men just stood there, as if collectively holding their breath.
Men pushed and shoved and scrambled over one another, reaching and clawing and clamoring for the cat. Several men knocked Kieran aside in their frenzy. Someone grabbed his largest crate and tried to capture the cat beneath it, but she easily danced out of the way of every attempt. Kieran clambered to his feet and watched the furor for a moment before jumping in.
He pushed a couple men out of the way and tried to snatch the cat’s tail. She swiped it out of reach as three other men closed in so she could not escape, but the cat slipped through each of their hands, darting under their legs. Kieran elbowed past the men and dove toward her. He landed on his wrist, and a surge of pain jolted up his arm. He’d missed the cat.
Kieran got up, rubbed his arm, and stepped outside the free-for-all. His heart sank. There was no way he could get the cat when all these men were after her. He glanced over to see the blacksmith standing on a fence post with one of Kieran’s crates raised above his head, poised to strike. Other men lurked about as if planning their next steps. The cat still looked unperturbed, still cleaning her paws. Her ears perked up, and she lifted her head, fixing her green eyes directly on Kieran. She jumped, just as Anders brought the crate crashing down. She skittered down the narrow lane between two cottages and was out of sight in a second. Several of the men dashed after her, but others, including Anders, muttered and picked themselves up.
Kieran plucked up his empty crates. Here was his chance to get the woman of his dreams, he thought. But he couldn’t just jump in there and grab it; he had to be smart about this, and to get away from all the commotion. Hoisting the crates on his shoulder, Kieran tramped back to the road leading out of the village and toward home.
When he reached the farmhouse door, he stopped. It stood ajar, with muddy boot prints leading in. That could mean only one thing. Kieran steeled himself before entering.
The girthy man lounging in the kitchen had his feet—muddy boots and all—on the table, hands behind his head. He grunted when Kieran entered without taking his feet off the table.
“There you are,” the man said. “You know what it’s time for.”
Kieran put down the crates in the corner and tried to ignore the dirt the man had tracked into the house.
“I, uh, don’t exactly have it yet,” Kieran said, then added, “but I’ll have it soon.”
The man’s casual position faltered. “You were late last month, boy. Don’t try me again.”
Kieran grabbed a rag and scrubbed away the mud around the boots still propped on the table. “I don’t need much more time, Hollis,” he said, “just a few days should do it.”
Hollis climbed to his feet. “Look,” he said, “I’ve put up with late payments and partial rent for years now, out of respect for your father. But a man’s got to eat.”
Kieran tried not to pointedly stare at Hollis’s ample circumference at that statement. He ran a hand through his ragged hair.
“I know,” he admitted. “I just need a few days more. Things are about to look up for me.”
“No, they’re not!” Hollis cried, slamming a fist down on the table. “Things aren’t the way they were when your folks were running things, and that’s just how it is. If you keep this up, your fortunes will fall faster than day turns to dusk.”
“That’s not true,” Kieran said. “It’s just a dry spell. It’ll get better.”
“Boy,” Hollis said through gritted teeth, “you give me that line one more time—”
“It’s true. I’m getting married!”
That shut the landlord up. His eyes widened and his mouth worked.
“You’re what?” he said at last. “Who’s marrying you?”
Kieran didn’t know why he’d said it. He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. “Well, I… Mistress Maeve, that’s who.”
At that, Hollis burst out laughing. Kieran’s face flushed with heat. He knew very well that the thought of him with Maeve was unexpected, but it wasn’t that mad, was it? Hollis finally caught his breath, wiping tears from his eyes, and grabbed his jacket.
“Tell you what,” he said, “if Maeve agrees to marry you, I’ll forgive all the debts you owe as a wedding present. If not,” he added with a sideways glance at Kieran, “you pay it all, up front. If you can’t pay with coin, you’ll pay with land, got it?”
Kieran swallowed. “Will you shake on that?” he asked. Hollis raised an eyebrow but clasped Kieran’s hand in a firm shake.
“You have until week’s end to get me my money,” Hollis said, walking toward the door.
“I won’t need that long,” Kieran said as the door swung closed.
Alone, he collapsed on the chair. What had he done?
Kieran stopped off at his neighbor Marta’s home. Marta’s house was little more than a hovel, but bright sprays of wildflowers brought the place to life. She was kneeling in the garden when he arrived.
“Evening,” he called.
“Oh hullo, love,” Marta, a squat, middle-aged woman, said without looking up. She took a moment to stand, her apron pockets bulging with freshly unearthed potatoes. She smiled, and Kieran decided not to mention the smear of dirt across her cheek.
“Lady is in the back,” Marta said, referring to the donkey. “But if you’d like, I’ve got some supper on first.”
Kieran accepted and sat in her kitchen as she prepared him a slab of cheese and some cold turkey. He told her about the day’s events as she worked.
Since his own parents’ deaths several years ago, Marta had made it her business to care for Kieran as if he were her own son. She fretted over him, scolded him, and fed him often. Though he frequently pushed back, the woman held a tender part of his heart.
“You know what I think,” Marta said when he had finished telling her.
Marta bustled about the kitchen, doing a lot of nothing. “I think you ought to go and talk to this woman,” she said, handing him a plate of food. “If she’s got any sense, she’ll see you’re a fine man and she’d be lucky to have you. That’s what I think.”
Kieran suppressed a smile. “Thanks, Marta,” he said, “but I think she’s got her mind set on this whole cat business.”
“Don’t know why,” Marta muttered.
Kieran wrapped the food in a handkerchief and rose. “I just wish,” he said, only half to Marta, “I wish that there was something I could do.”
Marta cocked an eyebrow at him. “Kieran Waters,” she said matter-of-factly, “you know plain well that there’s lots you can do that none of them townsfolk could ever think of.” She shook her head and wiped her hands on her apron. “You just think about that, you hear?”
Kieran wished he could believe her. But what was he going to do, woo Maeve with his knowledge of corn planting and chicken raising? He didn’t think so. He dropped the small parcel of food into his jacket pocket as he walked around the back of the house.
Out in Marta’s back garden, where the herbs and vegetables grew, his donkey stood with her head down, grazing.
“Hey, Lady,” Kieran said as he untied her from the bit of fencing. “Time to go home.” He started walking, but the rope grew taut and the donkey didn’t budge. He sighed, trying to stamp out his frustration. He tugged again, then again, but the donkey just blinked at him stupidly.
“Come on, Lady,” he pleaded with the stubborn animal. He pulled the rope harder, straining against it with all his might. Lady moved forward one step and then dug her hooves into the soft soil. Kieran yanked again before throwing the rope down and dropping to the ground with a huff. He jerked the food from his pocket, hoping that Marta was not watching.
What was it about today? he wondered, taking a bite of cheese. Was the world conspiring against him? He couldn’t even get his worthless donkey to follow him home. He shook his head and took a bite out of the cold turkey leg. And then there was Marta, telling him he should just go up to Maeve and sweep her off her feet. He snorted. As if Maeve would ever go for a man like him. The only way he would ever get her would be if he suddenly became king or got the key from that cat’s neck. He decided to try for the cat.
Trouble was, he’d seen how easily she had evaded the others. How was he supposed to get to it if even Anders couldn’t? He sighed and rested back on the fence. He had to figure it out. What could he do that no one else could?
A warm nose nuzzled Kieran’s shoulder, and he absentmindedly reached up and patted Lady’s neck. At least she had come to him. He rubbed her soft brown nose, and she nestled her face in his side. Kieran swallowed the last bite of his dinner, and it hit him.
That was it, he thought. That was how he could get the cat.
He knew what to do.
Easthaven, often heralded as the most idyllic village in the kingdom, was a madhouse. Slews of bachelors brooded and adopted bizarre tactics to get the cat, from building complex contraptions with cages and catnip to making outlandish costumes to look like enormous rats. Other men eyed each other suspiciously, and women grouped together in herds to gossip about the latest attempts to get the key.
“I heard that Branham put out saucers of poisoned milk for it,” Kieran heard one woman say to her cluster of friends as he led Lady through town. He steered a little closer. “He figured he could get the key well enough if the cat was dead,” the woman said. Kieran passed as they gasped in unison.
Suppose one of the other men got the key first, Kieran mused; what would he do then? Or suppose he did get the key, but Maeve took one look at him and changed her mind? He didn’t want to think about it, about any of the ways that this could go wrong.
As he approached the blacksmith’s forge, his gut tightened. Anders was there, the clang-clang of his hammer as monotonous as ever. Why wasn’t Anders out there with all the other men trying to attain the key? He averted his gaze as he skirted past the smithy.
The town square was a modest affair of shops and pop-up market stands that changed daily. He rented one of the rickety stalls and tied Lady to it. Kieran soon displayed baskets of eggs and summer berries, but his eyes did not search for customers in the crowd. He scanned the market for the black cat.
Only a handful of people had stopped at his stall before noon even in the midst of the market day, but that was fine by him. Kieran swiped a trickle of sweat from his brow and wrapped up a few berries. Handing them over to his customer, he saw her. The cat. Her fur was black as oil. No one else seemed to notice her stealing forward.
His mind raced with possibilities. He could forget his plan, he thought, and maybe get the jump on the cat right now. No, he had to stick to the plan. The cat’s midnight-dark fur glistened in the noontide sun. Midnight, Kieran thought. That’s as good a name as any for a cat.
He locked eyes with her. She looked intelligent. Kieran inched around the market stall without taking his eyes off her. She stood perfectly still, regarding him, and cocked her head sideways. Kieran stopped about six feet away from her, and carefully knelt down. The sounds of the market faded away as he squatted there, staring at Midnight’s unblinking green eyes. Kieran could feel his heart beating as he reached out one hand. Midnight looked at it. Her nose twitched, like she wanted to come around and sniff. Kieran didn’t move a muscle, though he could feel his legs beginning to cramp, but the cat took one step forward, and then another.
“Hey, there’s the cat!” someone shouted, jolting Kieran out of a trance. The cat skittered from the square as a tall boy crashed after her.
Kieran stood up with a wince; he had been tenser than he’d thought. But something had passed between Kieran and the cat just then—something akin to trust and respect, but not quite either. He smiled. He might actually be able to do this. He settled behind the market stand once more.
“I could help you, lad,” a woman said. She had been inspecting the eggs, and Kieran had paid her no heed until now. He looked at her and swallowed.
“I don’t need any help from the likes you, Eviline,” he said, snatching an egg out of her worn hands. The woman turned her brown eyes on him and smiled, revealing crooked rows of rotting teeth.
“Maybe so.” Her tongue darted over her cracked lips. “But I could make things easier for you. Make your beloved Maeve certainly yours. For a price.”
Kieran could see it, Maeve choosing him over everyone else, over Anders, and their beautiful life together. It would be perfect. It would be…
He stamped down the temptation and faced her straight on. “I have no dealings with witches,” he said, coldness dripping from every syllable. “Get out of here.”
The witch merely smiled and shrugged. “Very well,” she said. And she was gone.
Kieran couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in his stomach for the rest of the day. As the sun began to set and he loaded Lady with his unsold wares, Anders came parading through the market.
“In case any of you were trying for the hand of Mistress Maeve,” he bellowed, “don’t bother.” Kieran’s head jerked up, and he dropped a basket of eggs as Anders held up a silver key. His mouth fell open. What?
He was aware of men shouting and demanding answers, but he couldn’t hear what they said over the blood rushing through his ears. How did this happen? What did Anders do? But of course, he should have known it would happen. His plan was stupid anyway. The plan of a coward, of a talentless fool. If it had been anyone else, anyone else, it wouldn’t smart so much. But Anders? That was the worst part.
“Oi, farmer!” Anders called, pulling Kieran from his thoughts. Anders flashed a grin at Kieran and held something up in the darkening twilight. The small piece of silver glinted. “See this? This means you can’t pine after Maeve anymore, my friend. She’s mine.”
Kieran screwed up his face. “Hurrah,” he said, deadpan. He looked away as Anders slipped the key in his pocket. Kieran didn’t watch as Anders headed towards Maeve’s cottage. He just wanted to get out of there.
He shoved the rest of the eggs and berries into the packs on the donkey’s back, but before he could escape the square, someone else found him.
“So, er,” Hollis said, hands in his pockets, “I take it this means you’re not getting married?”
Kieran didn’t say anything. Why did this man make it his mission in life to get into everyone’s business? Why couldn’t he just leave well enough alone?
“Do I still have until the end of the week?” Kieran asked. Hollis nodded.
“Of course. But if you can’t get it by then, I’ll have to repossess some land to cover it.”
Kieran felt like he had been punched in the gut. He was supposed to be able to figure all this out. But now? His family’s land could not be ripped apart and sold because of his incompetence. Right then, Kieran wished Lady was a great steed so he could gallop away and ignore the whole situation. Hadn’t he suffered enough for one day? He pulled her reins.
“Fine,” he said, and Lady mercifully followed without hesitation.
The moon smiled down at the world from the middle of the night sky, but Kieran didn’t see it. He sat before a fire that cast patterns of light across the floor, deliberating. A window stood open for the breeze. He used to have all the really good conversations with his father in the firelight, he remembered. He wished they could talk now. Surely his father would have known what to do, surely he wouldn’t have been so foolish in the first place.
A rustling and a scratch drew his attention to the window. Kieran’s eyes widened.
Midnight stood on his windowsill, her green eyes gleaming in the firelight. She wasn’t what held him transfixed, but the silver key shining at her neck.
Kieran rose. “Hello, cat,” he said gently. He took a step, and the cat eyed him before sitting. “What are you doing here?”
Of course, she didn’t answer. Kieran looked around and spied his mother’s old knitting basket. He grabbed a strand of wool and took another step forward, proffering the red yarn. The cat seemed unbothered. Kieran inched forward a bit more and kept his hand outstretched, giving the cat the option to come to him.
Kieran looked at her. “I’ve started calling you Midnight. I hope that’s all right.” Midnight quirked her head to one side, almost like she approved.
He sat on the floor before the window, keeping his eyes on Midnight. The cat’s whiskers twitched, and in a smooth motion, she leapt down from the windowsill into the room. She skirted just out of Kieran’s reach. He brought his arm closer to his body and bounced the yarn.
“Does this mean that Anders didn’t get to you, girl?” he asked softly. Midnight hissed, and Kieran lifted an eyebrow. “I can relate to that sentiment.”
A softness brushed his hand. He looked down, and a smile creeped across his face. Midnight circled him again, staying close enough for her tail to brush him. Kieran didn’t move a muscle as he waited for her to come back around.
If by some miracle the competition for Maeve was still ongoing, maybe he still had a chance.
Midnight put a paw on Kieran’s knee and swatted at the yarn. He looked up and met her sharp eyes. She let out a soft meow and ducked her head. Carefully, Kieran raised a hand and stroked the soft fur on her back. Her ears moved, but she did not pull away. Her fur was softer than silk. He scratched behind her ears and she purred, resting her head on his knee. He stroked her from her head to her tail, then moved his hand up until he felt the silk ribbon. As soon as he touched it, she jerked away, leaping back onto the windowsill. Kieran clambered to his feet, holding his hands up to soothe her.
“It’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. She held his gaze a moment and then leapt out the window, escaping into the night. Kieran smiled as a surge of hope filled him. It wasn’t over yet.
The report that Anders had created a false key the day before was all anyone could talk about that morning. When he thought about it, Kieran wasn’t that surprised. It suddenly made sense why the blacksmith had been shut away in the smithy all day while the rest of Easthaven’s bachelors fought for the cat. Apparently, he had thought that if he opened the door with a key of his making, Maeve wouldn’t notice the forgery. One woman told Kieran that she had been the one to see the cat perched on Maeve’s roof with the key still around her neck when Anders had tried his key, but several others claimed the same.
Kieran set up shop as he had yesterday and waited. He shot his eyes to every possible sign of black fur, every flash of green. Finally, after hours of nothing, she came, striding seemingly out of nowhere. Kieran stepped out from behind his stall and moved toward the cat. He heard the market grow quiet around him as people noticed Midnight skulking toward him.
“Hey, girl,” he said, kneeling. He waited there, on his knees, for her to choose him. He smiled and pulled a small trout from his pocket, offering it to her. Midnight looked at it and hesitated. With her tail standing upright and her nose in the air, Midnight marched over to Kieran, snuffled around the fish, and took a nibble. She purred and put her head on Kieran’s knee, pushing at the crimson ribbon with her paw. Astonished, Kieran helped her, pulling the ribbon gently over her head. The silver key gleamed in the sunlight pooled in his palm. He stood up, slowly, unbelievingly, and held the key up in a victorious motion. The crowd of spectators, which he had not noticed growing until now, burst into loud cheers and applause. He felt dizzy.
“I have it!” he cried, and the crowd cheered again.
“Wait,” someone called over the din. From the midst of the crowd, a figure stole forward in a dark hood. The figure threw back her hood. It was Maeve, smiling at Kieran.
“Well done,” she said to him. “You have earned the trust of my truest companion, and you have won my hand in marriage.”
Kieran’s mouth worked, but no words came out. Now that she was really here, before him and all these people, he couldn’t believe it. His mind and his mouth could not seem to work together for a moment as one raced and the other fell silent. Maeve took a step forward and reached out her hand.
At last, he sank to one knee before her.
“I don’t have a ring yet,” Kieran said, offering the key to her, “but I can offer you this key and my hand in marriage.”
Maeve took the key. “I accept, farm boy,” she said, but the words sounded wrong. Kieran looked up as the crowd gasped. Her skin bubbled like the contents of a cauldron, and her grin turned devilish. Her eyes faded from bright blue to dull brown, and her skin grew sallow. Her perfect nose and sculpted chin elongated and wrinkled, and her beautiful hair turned to long gray frizz.
Eviline. Kieran’s mind reeled.
A wicked glint shone in her eyes as she cackled at Kieran’s confusion. Midnight backed away from the witch and hissed.
The witch tossed the key to her left, and Anders caught it smoothly, coming from the crowd.
“Thank you, Eviline, it’s been a pleasure,” he said. “And Kieran, I must say, that was rather touching. Thanks for this,” he added, holding up the key. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You—you can’t,” was all Kieran could manage as he climbed to his feet. Anders only shook his head.
“My dear Kieran,” he said with mock concern, “you could not have forgotten that the winner of the fair maiden’s hand only needs to unlock her home with the key. It says nothing about getting it from the cat’s neck himself.” He laughed as he turned to sprint to Maeve’s cottage.
Kieran tore after him.
He weaved around the people on the street and vaulted over anything that lay in his path. Anders disappeared around a corner, yanking down a sheet of linen strung up between buildings. The sheet slammed into Kieran’s face. It rolled up around his feet, forcing him to the ground. He scrambled to get out of it, thrusting it behind him as he dashed after Anders.
When Maeve’s cottage came into view, Kieran saw Anders careening through the garden to the door. Kieran shot forward as his adversary fumbled with the key. Just before he thrust the key into the lock, the door flew open and both men froze.
Maeve, true Maeve with her clear eyes and pink cheeks, looked askance at both men.
“What is going on?” she asked.
Anders spoke first. “I got the key and I was bringing it here to open the door, just like the sign said to do, but then out of nowhere, this boy starts chasing me.” He threw out the words at lightning speed as Kieran sucked in a breath.
“That’s not true!”
Kieran looked over to see that the whole crowd from the market square had followed them. Some were bent over double, panting, while others were nearly jumping up and down from the excitement of it all. Midnight streaked from the crowd to her mistress’s side as a woman stepped forward.
“I was there. It was this lad”—she thrust a thumb at Kieran—“who got the key, then Anders magicked it away from him by the likes of Witch Eviline.”
Maeve looked to Kieran. “I see,” she said. She hesitated, and Kieran tried to slow his breathing. “Be that as it may, the rules simply state that he who unlocks the door shall be declared the winner.”
Kieran crumpled, and there was an outcry among the assembly.
“But,” Maeve continued, silencing the crowd, “I will make an amendment.”
Anders protested, but Maeve shot him a look that shut him up. He rolled his shoulders and looked murderously at Kieran.
“We will let the cat decide,” Maeve said. “Whichever of you the cat comes to, he will be champion.”
Kieran looked at Midnight with unease. He didn’t have any yarn or fish this time; it was just going to be him and the cat. He felt as if liquid lead ran through his veins.
“Alright,” Anders said, shooting a grin to Kieran. “May the best man win.”
Maeve positioned both men in the street, equidistant from where she placed the cat.
Fear pulsed throughout Kieran, but he squashed it down. Had he read somewhere that cats could sense fear? He didn’t want her to have any reason not to trust him. As before, he knelt to the ground and slowly stretched out one hand. It was empty. From his left, Kieran saw Anders do the same.
Come on, Midnight, Kieran thought. It’s just me, nothing more. I guess now you choose to either take it or leave it.
Kieran saw Anders pull something from his pocket that looked like mint. Catnip. He tried to ignore it and turned back to the cat.
Midnight took several steps towards Kieran and sniffed his hand. He stopped breathing. But then she took a few steps left and sniffed Anders’s catnip. Kieran watched as she sniffed, and then took another step towards him, and another, until—the cat chose.
Anders cried out in triumph when Midnight poked her nose under his jacket and snuggled there. Kieran slumped to the ground and put his face in his hands as Anders stood.
After everything, it wasn’t enough. He had put everything on the line, offered nothing but himself, and it hadn’t been enough. Maybe it was for the best that he would lose the farm. He wasn’t sure he would be able to stay and watch Anders and Maeve with a swarthy bunch of children.
Kieran heard a scuffle. He looked up just in time to see Midnight rake her claws across Anders’s face. Several onlooked gasped as beads of blood formed there.
“What the—” Anders didn’t finish as the cat jumped from his arms, tearing his jacket pocket on her way down. Green shoots of catnip spilled from the tear, and a clump landed on the cobblestone between them. Midnight ran to Kieran and nuzzled her head in his side, purring gently.
“The cat has chosen!” Maeve cried, and the spectators burst into raucous applause. Kieran lifted Midnight as he stood and walked to Maeve. Standing before her, while onlookers cheered and hoorayed and jumped for joy, he looked into her eyes. Clear, blue, and shining. No trace of magic, not a hint of malice. She beamed at him and squeezed his hand.
“I have waited long for someone to prove honest and true,” Maeve said to him softly so only he could hear. “I look forward to getting to know you better in the months and years ahead of us, dear heart.”
All at once, every muscle in his body relaxed and he swayed where he stood. It was truly over.
Kieran and Maeve turned to Anders, who had a hand pressed over the scratch on his cheek. Confusion and anger battled in his eyes. Kieran couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the man. But only a very little.
“Just so you know,” Maeve said to Anders, “my cat is a unique one for many reasons. For one, she hates catnip.” Several people in the crowd snickered.
“Next time, you might want to put aside the ploys and tricks,” Kieran said. He couldn’t help but add, “After all, it’s not true love unless it’s true.” With that, he turned away from the blacksmith at last, Maeve’s small hand enveloped in his own.
Kieran looked into the cheering crowd and grinned when he saw Hollis. He held up their joined hands and shouted, “Thank you for the wedding present!” His landlord rolled his eyes.
When at last they made it away from the streams of people congratulating them and telling them this had been one of the most exciting days in town history, Kieran and Maeve strolled in the direction of the countryside.
“Well,” Kieran said, trying to think of something more to say. He stopped at the fork in the road leading to Marta’s small house, now safe from Hollis’s grasp, and turned to his new fiancée. He held out a hand. “I suppose I should introduce myself,” he said. “I’m Kieran, a mere farm boy.”
She took his hand, giving it a small shake. “I’m Maeve,” she said, “a mere orphan girl.” She smiled. “I think we will do quite well for each other.”
And on they walked.