A/N: Here is Part 2. Many apologies for the extremely long delay! There'll be one more chapter after this one.
It was not until early the next morning that Singh had a chance to explore the castle and investigate this new problem without fear of discovery. The Bloors and the other headmasters, drunk with wine and good food, would sleep uninterrupted well into the morning, and so there was no one else awake as Singh climbed out of his bed in the pre-dawn light and walked quietly out of the spacious guest bedchamber he had been given, closing the door gently behind him.
It was eerily silent inside the large building; the only noises to be heard were the occasional snores of sleeping headmasters and Singh's light, slightly echoing footsteps as he paced through the endless corridors of Bloor's Academy. No matter how much he tried, he couldn't hide the sound of his footsteps entirely; he had never been practiced in such skills, a thought which had never bothered him until now. It couldn't be helped, he knew. He would just have to hope the Bloors did not wake soon and realise that he was not in his bedchamber.
Where could he explore first? Where would be the most likely place to start his search for answers? The Red Castle, perhaps, Singh thought. It was, after all, where Miss Chrystal claimed to have found the Mirror of Amoret, and it was the Red King's ancient home. But when Singh came face to face with the door to the Academy grounds, he found it locked fast. No matter how much he wrenched the knob and shoved at the door, it wouldn't open. He didn't dare run at the door in case someone awoke and heard him. Of course the Bloors would lock all the doors during the night, Singh thought with some frustration. It was only logical, but it hindered his exploratory mission.
Feeling somewhat annoyed, he traced his steps back to the hall, where he sat none-too-gently onto the first step of the grand staircase. What could he do now? He didn't want to return to his bedchamber yet, not when he had gained no further insight into the strange goings-on his son had described. But he had no idea where else he could look. So he glanced despondently around the area, trying to think of another place inside the building that would be worth investigating.
It was then that he noticed the small door that led to the Bloors' ballroom. It was slightly ajar, which surprised Singh, for it had been locked the night before, and why would the Bloors leave it open? As he gazed at it, he thought he saw a flash of orange move beyond the door. It was so quick that he almost thought he had imagined it, until a deeper reddish hue and the light patter of footsteps—animal footsteps, it sounded like—caught his attention. Instantly he leapt to his feet, his mind whirring, and crept toward the door, listening intently.
Singh thought he could hear something, almost like a purr, coming from behind that door. As he came closer, he was sure of it. The purr deepened and increased, almost as if it were encouraging him. Singh reached the door, and peeked discreetly into the hallway beyond it. He couldn't help but be impressed. It was truly glamorous, with thick carpeting and a ceiling strung with sparkling stars. At the end of the hallway, he could see the gleaming arched doors to the grand ballroom, where the upcoming Grand Ball would be held. They would remain locked until that evening, when the guests began to arrive.
Apart from the ballroom door, there didn't seem to be anything else of interest, and so Singh turned away. And then came an impatient yowl. He jerked his head back, surprised. It sounded as if it had come from a cat! All at once curiosity rose in him, and he pushed the obscure door wide open, and stepped into the carpeted hallway.
Immediately, his gaze was riveted on the cat which sat at the foot of a winded staircase that stood just inside the hallway. It was like a flame, an amber flame that radiated warmth and comfort. Singh could feel the warmth envelop him from where he stood, and marvelled at it. The cat fixed large golden eyes on him, and mewed once at him, almost sounding exasperated. It was, Singh thought with amazement, almost as if it were telling him, 'Took you long enough.'
The cat turned and quickly darted up the winded staircase, pausing just once to look pointedly back at the confused man. Singh frowned. 'You want me to follow, fair creature?' he said. The cat gave what he thought was a nod, and scampered out of sight. Singh realised he had no choice but to follow, and began to ascend as well. There were four flights of stairs, and at each landing the cat patiently waited for Singh as he climbed up, before darting away again.
At the very top of the stairs, there was another door. It was closed, but the cat reached up on its hind legs and batted at the doorknob, managing to turn it enough for the door to open. It slipped through without a sound, and looked as if it expected Singh to follow. Singh hesitated for a moment. What was he doing, following a cat into a dusty, seemingly disused tower? Common sense told him that he should have returned to his bedchamber after entering the hall. It would have been the wisest course, he supposed. He didn't even know if he could trust this cat.
There was something inside him, however, that told him that this cat would not harm him, that it was a friend. He didn't know how he knew, but he did. Almost instinctively, he knew that he needed to follow this strange cat to wherever it was going.
He heard a complaining yowl, and a bronze head poked out of the doorway, eyes staring at him as if to say, 'Hurry up.'
Singh sighed. 'Alright, good cat. I am coming.' He pushed open the door, and the cat disappeared from view.
Singh stepped into a round, sparsely furnished room filled with dust and cobwebs. Sheets of paper littered the floorboards- music sheets, Singh realised with clarity, bending down briefly as the faded notes on a crumpled page caught his eye. Rachmaninov. 'A stalwart composer,' he mused. He read the title of the piece. 'Isle of the Dead.' He shivered. It seemed a strange composition to play in what was clearly a music lesson room of some kind. He would have thought that its theme would be considered far too serious for a young music student.
Gradually his eyes were drawn to the grand piano that stood in the centre of the small room. There was a man slumped on the stool before it, his head resting on the black and white piano keys. He appeared to be asleep. A cat stood on the stool, nudging the man's cheek and purring anxiously. It had an amazing colour that Singh couldn't tear his eyes from, almost like a burning crimson flame. How beautiful, Singh thought in wonder.
There was another yowl, more impatient this time, followed by another. Singh turned toward the sound. Two cats gazed back at him with golden eyes, unfathomable and wild. One of an orange hue sat proudly on the windowsill, and Singh recognised it as the one who had led him to this room. Another, of a yellow colour, was placed at the foot of the piano stool, silent and still, with what Singh thought was a grave expression in its eyes. Singh blinked, and almost rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't mistaken. For how could cats display a human emotion such as that?
The cat looked at him then, and purred in welcome. This was echoed by the cat on the piano stool, albeit in a more hurried tone. Singh gazed at them both as the realisation struck him. Briefly he recalled the tomes he had read long ago, the information that had been absorbed into his mind like a sponge. The Red King came from Africa accompanied by three loyal leopards... immortal, gifted with magical powers beyond those of normal leopards... they can still be seen in parts of the country, protecting the descendants of the Red King's five good children...
Singh wanted to hit himself at his slowness. It was clear who they were, so painfully clear. How could he have not seen it before?
They were the Red King's leopards.
Well, they were now cats, of course, but still powerful and with centuries of knowledge in their golden eyes, experiences that Singh could only dream of. Feeling slightly foolish, he bowed low to them. 'Fair cats, I did not recognise you at first,' he said. 'But now I see. How can you be anything else but the Red King's leopards?'
The cats purred in agreement. The orange cat gazed at him with bright eyes, and Singh thought he saw pleasure in its features at his comprehension.
'Well then,' he said, returning its gaze. 'You have brought me here for a reason, I can see. What can I do?'
In answer, the cat leapt from the windowsill and crossed the floor toward the young pianist, mewing softly. Singh followed it, stepping gingerly over the crumpled music sheets. The cat trotted underneath the piano stool and rubbed itself against the man's legs, while the red cat continued to nuzzle the man's down-turned face with deep purrs. The man never even stirred, much to Singh's surprise.
He looked helplessly at them. What on earth did they expect him to do? Call for help?
'What do you want from me?' he demanded.
Three pairs of eyes riveted on him, and he shivered under the force of their stare. One growled, and Singh thought he could hear what it was trying to say. Help him.
'But how?' Singh said desperately.
More growling. Remember. Go to ball. Meet the Shadow.
'But why?' Now he was truly baffled.
Again golden eyes bore into him, urgent and insistent. You have a gift,Singh thought he heard in midst of the yowling.
Singh swallowed. It was true that he had some gifts, but they were minor, and had never been much use to him. Yes, he could detect a lie, and see through illusions and enchantments that were cast. At times he could even hear a person's thoughts, if he concentrated closely enough. But it had never been particularly helpful to anyone but himself. He didn't see how any gift of his could be of use now.
'Forgive me,' he said, 'but my endowment is weak, useless. It can surely do nothing here. I don't believe I can help you.'
The cats voiced their disagreement by growling at him. You can, you can.
Help, the orange cat thought. Help us.
They gazed at him with urgent eyes, almost pleading. Behind them he could see the piano man, still as a stone, seeming almost dead in his paleness.
Singh found himself nodding, even as his heart lurched within him. They had him trapped. How could he refuse to help when a man's life was at stake?
'Fine,' he said. 'I will help.'
The cats purred their approval.
It was almost eight o'clock when Singh returned to the hall. As he entered the landing he could hear the Academy coming to life above him, as staff began to awaken and footsteps could be heard walking along corridors. He managed to reach his bedchamber without being waylaid or spotted, much to his relief, and he fell into his bed with a sigh.
He felt more exhausted than he had expected, but he couldn't sleep, not now. Too much information coursed through his brain. The cats had told him much, in their own way. He couldn't understand them as a person gifted with animal-speak could, but they made themselves reasonably understood through a combination of thoughts and animal noises. They had spoken of the shadow, the enchanter Harken, whose destructive presence threatened the Red King's city. They had told him to go to the Grand Ball that was to take place that evening, which they seemed certain Harken would be attending. They had not said why or how they knew, just that they wanted him to go there and investigate as he had planned to do. And something else. Singh held up his hand, felt the round curve of the ring buried in his palm. A most strange ring- it was slender and plain, but its pendant shifted colour as if it were alive and breathing. When Singh peeked at it he could almost see a face in its shiny jewel.
It had been difficult to find, even with the map the cats had shown him. He had wandered for half an hour, staring wide-eyed with wonder at the crumbling statues and fountains, imagining the splendid castle garden it must once have been. It was truly magnificent, and very large. If he had not had a map, he would surely have been lost. In a darker part of the ruin, he had found what he was looking for, trapped neatly in a little crevice in the wall. At first, it seemed like there was nothing there, but then the crevice shimmered and he knew it for what it was: an elaborate illusion, perhaps cunningly conjured by the Princess Guanhamara herself as she fled the castle and Harken's influence. For nine centuries, it had stayed there, unseen and protected by clever magic. Until now. Singh had taken it from its hiding place and hid it in the palm of his hand, as the Flames had instructed, and had hurried back to the grey building that was the Academy.
He gazed at it for a second more, and clenched his fingers around it again. It was a priceless ring, clearly magical and once owned of the Red King. Why else would it have been stuck in a crevice in the Red King's own castle? For so many years it had been safely hidden, but the emergence of the Red King's old nemesis had endangered its hiding place. The enchanter Harken would certainly crave a ring such as this which once belonged to the magician king and held some sort of unique magic. Singh shuddered to think of such a man in possession of a potentially powerful ring such as this.
The cats had been right to be alarmed. If Singh had not found the ring, the enchanter would have eventually, and would have either destroyed it or sought to use it for his own evil purposes. It would have made him even more powerful than he was already. But it was Singh who had found the ring, because the cats had asked him to. He marvelled at their foresight and intelligence. How was it that cats such as these had minds as sharp as those of humans?
A tentative knock on the door startled him from his thoughts. Clenching the ring in one hand, he hauled himself across the floor and answered the door, wishing fervently that he wouldn't be interrupted. A young woman smiled at him brightly, her dark hair scraped back into a bun and her lips painted a crimson red, the colour of her skimpy dress. A name tag on her bosom read ABBIE.
'Good morning, Sir!' she said cheerfully. 'I hope you slept well. Breakfast is at nine o'clock sharp, in the dining hall. See you there!'
Before Singh could thank her, she was gone, practically running toward the next door. Singh sensed that this wasn't a pleasant task, to be so close to the strange headmasters with the freakish endowments. He had to be impressed at her competent facade, even as he pitied her. The other headmasters were not likely to be as discreet as he was.
He glanced at the gilded clock on the far side of the room. It was half-past eight, he saw. Almost breakfast time. The other headmasters and the Bloors would be awake by now, as well. Singh couldn't suppress a slight shiver at the thought of that dreadful family discovering his early morning adventure. It would be the end of him, for sure.
Placing the ring in a deep pocket in his gown, he walked out of the chamber, appearing more confident than he felt.
Breakfast was an uncomfortable affair. Singh chewed at his food tensely, feeling the magical ring heavy in his pocket. He felt the Bloors watching him with wariness, and feared that they suspected him. At one point he dared look at them, and saw the cold gaze Dr Bloor directed at him, his eyes saying, 'Try anything and we will punish you.' Singh had a very good idea how they would go about it- maybe they would contrive a traffic accident to cause his death, or hypnotise him into forgetting who he was. Whatever it was, Singh hoped that he had not given them any reason to think him a threat. If they did, they would not hesitate to strike.
Meetings were to take place all over the Academy, after breakfast. Headmasters could be seen chatting easily with each other in the hall, even as they flaunted their supernatural gifts. As Singh weaved his way through the crowds he noticed Dr Oranga shift into the form of a phoenix, floating majestically beneath the rafters, while the shimmering image of a rainbow circled him.
He stepped forward, and came face-to-face with the boys from under the table. The dark-haired boy blinked at him, his brown eyes startled.
'Aha, we meet again,' Singh said, smiling broadly. He put a finger to his lips and winked at him. 'Good luck!' He would certainly need it.
Outside, it was less crowded, and much less noisy. Singh breathed in the fresh January air with relief; he had felt stifled in the building, more so than he had thought. From here he could see the ruins of the Red Castle, the ruins he had spent the pre-dawn morning exploring. Its crumbling, red-tinged walls and towers were a majestic contrast to the darkness of Bloor's Academy, and he couldn't help but make comparisons.
'Monsieur Singh!' a familiar voice sounded from behind him. He felt a hand gently touch his shoulder in greeting, and spun around, with no doubt of who the hand belonged to. He would recognise her voice anywhere.
Dark eyes met his own, within a pale face framed with dark-brown hair that was pulled into a tight bun. Her every feature radiated warmth and kindness, from her merry eyes to her wide, generous mouth. Though she was now approaching her fifties, her proud posture was the same as it had been ten years before, when they had last met, and her body had not lost any measure of its strength. Clearly, she was still a force to be reckoned with, Singh thought, despite the grey dots in her hair and subtle wrinkles underneath her eyes.
'Madame Derivere,' he greeted her, stooping to kiss her cheek. 'It is good to see you.'
'And you,' she said. 'I had not thought to see you here; I thought you had sworn never to come here again.'
'I changed my mind,' Singh said. 'I found that I had to come after all.' And, lowering his voice, he told her of his son's phone call, and the animals' disappearance. The ring, he kept to himself, as he did the results of his early-morning exploration. That was between himself and the Flames, and he knew in his heart that it should stay that way.
Madame Derivere gasped, and clutched at the skirt of her navy-blue dress. 'Quelle horreur!'
'I am certain now that the enchanter has caused the exodus,' Singh said. 'How, I do not know.'
Madame Derivere frowned, deep in thought. 'The Bloors claimed that the enchanter was good, and only sought to protect the Red King's children. I have never heard of this Count Harken Badlock before, but if he is with the Bloors he does not have peaceful intentions. I would not trust them with my life, or that of my children or grandchildren.' She shuddered. 'I still recall the last gathering, you know. Dorothy was still here, of course; I saw her, and spoke to her when we had a moment to ourselves. She seemed so sad, and bitter, and lonely. So different from the Dorothy I always knew. It made me hate them all the more so, for changing her like that.'
'And how is Dorothy?' Singh asked gently.
Madame Derivere sighed. 'Safe, and much happier than when she was with Harold. I helped her settle into an apartment in Paris, where she teaches violin. She writes to me, every so often, and I try to visit her when I can. But it is a long way from Bordeaux to Paris and I seldom have time to be away from my school.' She smiled sadly. 'Dorothy is very well, but she will never be the same as she was before she married Harold. I am only glad that she managed to escape that family and the half-life she had been living for so long.'
'So am I,' Singh said sincerely. He had not known Dorothy Bloor well, but he had met her once, during the last Hundred Heads' gathering. She had been kind, and a good hostess, sociable and generous with her attention in a way her husband hadn't been. Singh had liked her, though he hadn't expected himself to. In his opinion, no person in their right mind would choose to join that family unless they were dark-hearted like the Bloors. Dorothy had been different. Singh had come to respect her in his own way, and had been grieved to hear of her misfortune and her crushed hand.
'Monsieur Singh,' Derivere said slowly. 'I am breaking a confidence here, but I feel I must speak.'
The back of Singh's neck prickled, and he stared at Madame Derivere.
'Shortly after she came to Paris, Dorothy wrote to me, asking me to visit her. She said it was urgent, that there was something she had to tell me. So I drove all the way to Paris, intending to stay the weekend with her.' She paused, and Singh saw turmoil in her eyes.
'Go on,' he said gently. 'What did she say?'
Derivere swallowed, and continued. 'She said that she had to speak to me, for her peace of mind. Her husband had done something terrible once, and she had stood by and done nothing. It ate at her, this guilt, and she had to speak to someone about it before it consumed her. That is what she told me.'
There was more silence. This time Singh waited for her to speak again, knowing that when she was ready she would continue.
'Dorothy told me that she had been privy to a plot to abduct a baby girl, Emma Tolly. And that on the day the girl was to be handed over, in the cathedral square, she was there. She saw everything. The organist... Lyell Bone... tried to stop it, but Ezekiel struck him. It was not as Ezekiel said,' Derivere said, looking at Singh with remembered horror in her eyes. 'The organist struck back, out of retaliation. And Manfred... hypnotised him, and the little girl too, made him return to his house without any recollection of who he was and later crash his car into a quarry.'
A strangled sound came from Singh's throat. There were no words for this. He could only stare at Derivere with wide eyes and listen.
'Dorothy was horrified,' Derivere went on. There was a faraway look in her eyes, as if she were imagining herself someplace else. 'They did not tell her of the crash until afterwards, when it was too late to do anything. They knew she wouldn't have condoned it. Afterwards they brought the man to Bloor's Academy, and gave him a job and a new identity. They imprisoned him in the music tower...'
The music tower... An image came to his head, of the man he had seen there, slumped over the piano, with the three extraordinary cats by his side. Could it be...
'Dorothy wanted to speak out, but was afraid. They had threatened her, you see.' Derivere shook her head, her eyes saddened. 'I almost could not believe it when she told me, but it is the truth. Last night when I heard Ezekiel speak of it, I knew him to be lying, or at least not telling the entire story. That poor man...'
Singh's head was whirring. He shook his head, trying to organise his thoughts. 'So the man I saw in the tower is the organist, Lyell Bone,' he said, hardly able to believe his own words. Seeing Derivere's questioning gaze, he explained his exploratory mission and the discovery of the man in the tower, and the Flame cats who were once the Red King's leopards. 'They seemed to be consoling him, trying to give him strength. I had thought he was simply asleep, but it seems I was wrong.' He suppressed a shudder at the memory.
Madame Derivere clapped a hand over her mouth, seeming distraught. 'Mon Dieu,' she said in hardly more than a whisper. 'How horrible. And you say that these cats want you to be at the ball, to help that man?'
Singh nodded. 'I believe so. But I do not know how. They wanted me to meet the enchanter Harken, but they did not say why.'
He saw a determined expression come over Derivere's face. Her eyes like steel, she spoke. 'Then you must meet him. You will know why when the time comes, Monsieur Singh. And I will come with you. I would like to meet such a man myself, to see what he is made of.'
Singh gave an ironic laugh. 'Madame Derivere, listen to me when I tell you that you would not like to meet a man like the enchanter Harken.'
'Even so, I will come with you.'
And Singh felt relief at her decision, for he had been a trifle afraid to meet such a powerful, heartless enchanter by himself, weakly endowed as he was. Madame Derivere was doubly endowed, and more equipped than he to stand up against a possible attack. It stood to reason that she accompany him. But even as he agreed with her, he couldn't help but be apprehensive.