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We all trailed into the dining room, where Lynn Tarragon was standing by the sideboard pretending to admire the old-timey photos of Sasha’s ancestors arranged on its linen cloth. Aha! I felt Meeze’s outer soul curl itself into the available niches of Lynn’s, sniffing about. A true humani wouldn’t have felt anything, but she bristled a little, pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose and staring at Meeze with suspicion. Then the expression faded as if she had never realized she had put it up there, to be replaced with a shadow of bewilderment. She shook it off with a wince of soul-pain I don’t think she even knew she felt, and concentrated on Terry instead.

“Hello, Riverly. I actually stopped by to see Sasha, but I understand that he has a real job.”

“Hey, Tarragon, at least I graduated into my current academic torpor. No dissie, no shirtie. Or are you seriously going to buckle down and stop doing ‘research?’” he finger quoted at her. Both Meeze and I raised our eyebrows at this exchange. Their affect was a tad peculiar—a hint of real hostility was curling in the air, but I got the impression that this surprised them both. Issues here, definitely issues. I thought about bouncing on the remote “by accident,” but the morning talk shows were still on. No Dr. Phil, although maybe Judge Judy might be more their style.

She narrowed her eyes. “What would you know about research, film boy?”

“Ha! ‘ja ever look at my dissertation? Or better yet, the book? No, didn’t think so.” He went past her into his office, talking over his shoulder as he went. “Let me remedy that.”

“Oh no, please don’t get him talking shop,” pleaded Meeze.

“Don’t worry, he just wants to make me look bad,” Lynn said with a sigh.

“Thank God,” said Meeze with fervor. “Oops. That came out wrong.” He extended a huge hand. “Artemisio Donato, Lion de Medici. Call me Meeze. Or Rude and Stupid.”

Amused, she took his hand. “Arianlyn Lannon Tarragon. Call me Lynn. What’s the Lion thing about?” Okay. What was going on here? She really didn’t seem to know. I wondered how Meeze was going to handle this one.

But he just smiled and said, “Am I the first Lion of Mercy you’ve met?”

“How would I know?” Her eyes grew sharp, and I could smell just a whiff of her sweat glands opening up. For some reason, this seemed important to her.

“Long hair,” he brandished the braid at me to bat, “although usually not this long, and the beads.” He rattled the four-paw or so strands of small glass beads around his neck, his collar of obedience. I had learned early on to stifle the tremendous temptation to tackle the beads left on the hooks surrounding the hot tub.

Lynn frowned and pushed her thick glasses further up on her nose. “OK, I’ve seen you before, I think. What do Lions of Mercy do?”

“Get cats out of trees,” he quipped. “Or in her case, rescue them from ravening toms.” I made sure my claws stuck in the braid, hoping he’d get the point.

Terry came back in with a rather dusty cloth-bound book. I could make out the letters spelling “film” and “United States,” which only made sense, given the topic. He almost slammed it down on the table.

“I gotcha research right here. Oh, wait, no–I gotcha writing right here. Proof of the pudding. How many chapters do you have done?”

“You’re a dissertation bully!” cried Meeze. “I never would have thought it of you. Would you like me to beat him up for you?” he said to Lynn, with a half-bow. “I swung by to bury his ass in some basketball as it is. Leave the lady alone, you dirtwipe. Man, but I hated people like you when I was dissertating.”

“Yeah, and you finished, didn’t you?” Terry was whacking him with his outer soul. I wasn’t sure what a “dissertation” was; it was a new word for me, but it seemed to be something annoying but necessary.

“How many chapters, Tarragon?” He forestalled any Meezian interjections with a hand.

He was lucky Lynn didn’t have claws, or she would have cuffed him a good one, I think. “One.” She tensed up. “I’m sorry, but not all of us have the mansion and the staff of Lions. Are you a bodyguard too, Meeze? Or maybe the butler?” She paused. “I’m sorry,” she said to the redhead. “I’m not trying to be rude to you.”

“Nothing insulting about being a butler, ma’am,” Meeze said. “I grew up picking peaches in fine migrant towns all over California. Butler is a social step up. That said, I’m an engineer, which is a social step sideways.”

She laughed despite herself. “What kind of engineer?” Terry’s outer soul practically screamed at him not to mention his job, which was to make sure the Poplar-Bricklight building, which held all the Nova Terran Contract offices, didn’t fall down in a heap. I didn’t have the details, but from what I’d picked up in meetings and from Sasha in the car the other day, something was wrong with the foundation and it was being held up by sorcery. Meeze bossed the sorcerers and was trying to get the Powers that Be–Terry the archimago–to sign off on turning it into a straightforward engineering fix. Hey! Wait a minute! I realized that this precarious building was the one Sasha had taken me to yesterday. I was glad I hadn’t quite parsed this at the time as it would have increased my nervousness.

But Meeze was ignoring Terry. “I’m a project engineer currently on sabbatical from projects. The Order has me doing stuff,” he said, with a vague circular wave of his paw. “Like, for instance, making up the roster for said bodyguards. Did you even know that?” he asked Terry.

“Uh, no, I didn’t. Why you?” Despite his migrant worker youth, Meeze was Th’nashi nobility, and should have been beyond such mundanities.

“‘cause I’m good at it. Would you like some tea, Lynn?” Meeze’s cup was empty, and he turned back toward the kitchen.

“You’d think he lived here,” grumbled Terry. All the Lions, even the cubs, treated our house as if it were their own, but somehow Meeze did it with attitude.

“No, thank you for your manners,” Lynn replied, glaring at Terry. I could tell that she was trying not to cry despite Meeze’s attempts to defuse the spat.

But Terry was persisting. “Why are you making shabby excuses? OK, yeah, Sasha’s house has it going on, but I did most of my writing in that damned library, and you watched me do half of it, because you were working there at the time. It’s not like you were in the street or something.”

“How the hell would you know?” Lynn almost screamed. “Rita and I ended up sleeping in the car for two months after the divorce. You have no idea what Lafe put me through; you have no idea what Rita’s gone through–in fact, that’s why I stopped by. I wanted to explain some things to Sasha, because he’s honestly concerned. The reason she’s not in school is that she was having anxiety attacks that turned into asthma attacks that sent her to the ER on an average of twice a week. Trauma does that.” She swallowed back tears.

“But then, you’re only daddy to a kitty, aren’t you? Sorry, Eureka, nothing personal, but you’re not very complicated.” I knew this was really aimed at Terry, so I didn’t take it the wrong way.

“Well, if you were sleeping in the car, you should have called your buddy the billionaire before you put Rita through that!” Terry’s outer soul had frozen in shock at “sleeping in the car,” and he was really angry now.

“I tried! I swallowed my pride and I tried! But the . . . Lion or whoever . . . the staff person who answered said you got a dozen begging calls a week, and he gave me the number of Catholic Charities!”

Terry’s anger departed and he plopped into a chair. There was a long, awkward silence. After about a minute of it, he said, “Do you remember the name of the person you spoke to? When was this?” I could feel his tears welling up unshed as he sat there in what her outer soul was pouring off.

“No, and sometime last year. But I’m glad he told me to kiss off. I don’t know if I would have been able to live with myself, coming begging to your feet.”

“Ah, Tarragon. Lynn.” Aria, hung unsaid on the air. “Nothing like that.”

“Riverly, I know you’ve been through hell and high water, but you’ve never had to beg, have you?”

More silence. I could feel Meeze pausing in the kitchen doorway, then pushing his way through the swinging doors. He was carrying a tea tray.

“Please, Lynn. Have some tea.” He also had snagged some paper towels, which he handed her so she could mop up her cry. She let him pour her a cup of tea which was laced with a bit of tsain. Terry frowned at this as he caught the citrusy smell, but Meeze gave him the shut-up-stupid whack with his outer soul the Th’nashi called a y’rai.

I put my front paws up on Terry’s legs, asking for his lap again, because I was pretty sure my back half would divorce me if I tried the jump. This time he complied, and there we sat, stroking, sniffling, sipping, and trying to purr ourselves into a less difficult corner of the conversation.

I heard Sasha’s car pull into the driveway. This was unexpected. He came in and scowled at the men, not knowing who had said what to make Lynn cry. He knelt at Terry’s side and had him hold me up so he could check my stitches.

“How is she?” Lynn asked, in a shaky copy of her usual voice. “I had the same surgery way back when I had Rita. It wasn’t fun.”

And things became more normal. At least on the surface. After ten minutes of careful small talk, Lynn left, saying, “Feel free to pass on the basics to Sasha, Riverly. It’s what I came for. Nice to have met you, Meeze.”

I sighed like a human when the door closed behind the tatters of her odd outer soul. I decided stress was bad for my convalescence, and went off to use the pan in Terry’s office. I nearly fell asleep while using it. The windowseat was too high, but Terry had knocked his sweater off the back of his chair while looking for his book, so I just curled up on it in the corner and passed out.

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