Lynn sank down on a couch with me in her arms. I was trying to ping and smell with all my might, but it was almost impossible–too much new stuff. Too many people frequented this place; and there was a thick overlay of Hans as well. Hans! Would he prove a friend? Probably not; if I were a gift to the Kaiserin his loyalties might be conflicted.
But at the least, he’d give me some information. Lynn and I were prisoners of war, I figured, and as such, our first duty was to escape. Information was the first step. I wriggled free and trotted toward the strongest Hans-smell. But my way was blocked by an invisible barrier. There was German coming along the corridor; I caught the word “Katzenklo.” And then Hans was there anyway, along with the Kaiserin. Everybody stared at each other–well, the Kaiserin didn’t make eye contact with Lynn; she just looked sad.
“Ja, sie braucht ein Katzenklo,” the Kaiserin said. “Aber nur in den Laden gehen, ja?” Her eyes reddened.
Hans said, “They are talking about going back and stealing your litter pan. Steffi is trying to get them to go to the store. Like honest people.”
“Hans, what are they going to do with us?”
He sighed. “I told you to bury her like a bone. The Kaiser is even now on the phone talking to people and trying to decide who gets the treat. You, on the other hand, will stay with us. You’re the lucky one here. Steffi will spoil you rotten. And I too will make you as welcome as I can. This is shameful! Unworthy of any honor! But we can make the best of it.”
I nuzzled him in thanks, trying not to think of Sasha’s face when he realized I wasn’t there anymore. I shook myself. As Hans reassured me, I wasn’t in any danger of anything other than heartbreak. Lynn, though! I looked down at my slender paws. I wasn’t even full-grown yet, and I had already seen what a simple spell could do to me.
The Kaiserin was standing still, looking awkward as Lynn rocked back and forth on the couch and sobbed. Then she sort of wobbled over and sat next to the crying woman, putting out a tentative hand which trembled.
“Oh my dear,” she murmured. “Oh my dear, how frightening! You had never gated before?”
Yow, I’m a dummy, I thought. That part of it hadn’t even occurred to me. As if seeing the feline pal levitated hadn’t been bad enough.
“I . . . don’t . . . know . . . what you mean,” gasped Lynn. The bodyguard fished out a tissue with bad grace. She took it and blew her nose. The Kaiserin made an angry shooing gesture and said some more sharp things in German to the two of them, and they went off. I crouched next to Lynn, and Hans lay at our feet. I could feel Lynn trying to calm herself. Ivy League brains didn’t tend to go all to mush, as a rule, I told myself. But I could now see how someone might go a little crazy with this intrusion of the uncanny into a life that had already pitched a few curve balls.
An older woman came in, carrying a tray with a pitcher of ice water and a box of tissues. She had severe features which seemed marked with sadness, and her outer soul thought this was all a dreadful shame. She too was a Todeschlagi Grail–was the bastard trying to collect them all?
“Danke schön, Mildred.” The Kaiserin turned to Lynn. “Please, my dear. You must bear up and not let this make you sick.”
“Where am I?” Lynn demanded. “Who are you? What’s going on?”
“I am Steffi von Falkenrath, the Kaiserin of Todeschlag–and that means nothing to you, am I right?”
Lynn shook her head.
“You are in one of our buildings in Berlin, and we . . . I . . . will explain as best as I can.”
“Berlin,” whispered Lynn. She rose and looked out of the window. “How is this possible? Is this even human technology? Are you aliens or something? What do you want with me–with us?” She gestured at me.
“The kitty is meant as a gift for me which will double the slap in the face meant for the Archimago of Nova Terra. You have no idea who that is either, do you?” Steffi sighed and muttered something in German under her breath that needed no translation to come across as “Great. Stick me with the hard job, why don’t you?” But she sighed and got about it.
“Your name is Lynn, yes? I am glad you are clever. For you are correct; this was alien technology. Everyone you have met here is technically an alien–but many of your friends at home are as well. The archimago I mentioned is your friend Terence Riverly, and he is one of the most important of our people.”
“Am I a hostage?”
Steffi made a face and a shrug. “No, liebschen. You are what I am in cold reality; what Mildred is. We are prisoners. We belong to the Kaiser, my husband.” She made herself meet Lynn’s eyes. “You are very valuable chattel. You’re probably lucky Wilhelm is so fond of me, else you might have found your one of a kind self installed as Kaiserin, to be shown off. But no,” she corrected herself, “you will need to be hidden away. Listen to what I tell you, and be brave! You do not know it, but you were bred to be a warrior. Hear the whole thing out.” She poured herself a drink of water and bent to pet Hans for a second for courage. And then she began to tell Lynn the story the Crucio had told me, all about how the Th’nashi came to be.
She even called for one of the guards to come kneel at their feet and demonstrate the alacrity with which the cruel curves of the Toadie fangs could plunge out from behind the false canines. Lynn listened, enraptured despite herself, as her own outer soul brushed against Steffi’s and realized that every word was true.
“We Todeschlagi were meant as a refinement on the original genetic work Chatte’d’garcon did to blend us with the humani. We are bigger, stronger, faster, and yes, just a bit smarter than the average Th’nashi.” She laughed without humor. “We are even better looking. Think of your friend Artemisio de Medici. He is one of us, you know–his Firenzi princess mother had an affair with one of our sailors. He is true Todeschlagi type: beautiful, brilliant–he even has the my’vaht hair some of our Lions have which would trip them unless kept cut–goodness knows why they bothered to throw that in. It is as if everything the Lions had, they wanted to make more so. Super soldiers. And yes, even that measures a little extra. Or so I am told. Wilhelm would probably have me shot if I did research.” She quirked her lips. It was a joke, if a small one, and Lynn smiled. She was getting her brave back.
Steffi’s eyes darkened, however, as she confessed how the Todeschlagi had behaved during the Second World War. Were they not the true Master Race? They had hitched their wagons onto Hitler, forming a super-elite company of the SS, and had planned to in turn conquer the Aryans themselves, once the humani had done all the heavy lifting. But they had forgotten that the Th’nashi had failed to conquer the humani back when they had come; and they were not the only Lions to enlist.
“We had no shame. And when the Th’nashi held their own war tribunals, they tried to wipe us out. Even our innocents. The only people to survive had already fled the Fatherland, prophesying that we faced a similar fate to the gypsies and the Jews, or protesting what the rest of us were doing. Today, out of some two million Th’nashi, only 246 are of Todeschlag.
“No, 247 now. For you are one of us, liebschen. I am sorry.” She stopped to appraise what effect this would have on the American woman. But Lynn only nodded a slow assent.
“Yes, I believe it. I’ve never felt entirely human. Or do I mean humani?”
Steffi sighed with some relaxation. This was going better than anybody had hoped–at least on our side. We’d been selling Lynn short.
But Steffi wasn’t finished. “This is unpleasant, but I am here to assure you that there is nothing to help it: My husband is deciding which of his nobles he wishes to gift you to. He sees you as an object, and because–forgive me–you are past your first beauty, they will see you as one as well. You will be a curiosity, used for your blood. And yes, maybe for other things.” She stretched out a hand in pleading. “Please understand me–they want you to resist. They want you to fight. They want nothing more to break the will. Do not give them one to break. I have seen toy Grails mutilated. Badly,” she whispered.
A woman came into the room, bowing to the Kaiserin. They said a few things. Then Steffi turned back to Lynn and said, “This is Dr. Klein. She wants to take a DNA swipe of your cheek. We are trying to solve your mystery. Will you allow it?”
Lynn said, “I suppose so, especially as I suspect you’re asking permission just to be nice.” Her voice was hollow, outer soul fighting shock. She opened her mouth and let her cheek be scraped, while Steffi pinged shame.
There was a bustle in the hallway and the Kaiser entered with three other men, looking proud of himself. I couldn’t help but growl under my breath.
“Shh!” whispered Hans. “When he is in a power mood, he would as soon throw you in the river and then scream at Steffi for the rudeness of her cat. Do not do anything to anger this man, I pray you!” It was hateful to know that the hundred pounds of death at our feet was afraid of that smarmy bundle of thieving human garbage. I subsided. Then I realized, upon closer stealthy ping, that Hans was not afraid of the Kaiser at all; he was just a pragmatist. I wondered what would happen if the little tyrant were ever without his bodyguard, and was stupid enough to make Steffi unhappy. Then I shook the thought off. Whatever else Wilhelm von Falkenrath was, I doubted stupid was on the list.
I recognized Rudolf and the sorcerer, but the Kaiser also had a strange man with him. He was biggish, but not a true Lion-type. He radiated something nauseating that the women picked up on too. Steffi had caught her breath very softly when she had seen him, and an arrow of anguish went from her outer soul to Lynn’s. She stood up now.
“No, Wilhelm, please. Please give our guest a little time to acclimate–I have told her much of who we are, but not enough yet. Give her that. Please. Let her stay with me some days.”
He laughed and folded his hands as he had back at the party. “No, dear heart. The Graf is eager to take her now.”
“In fact,” the other man frowned, “you overstepped yourself by telling her anything at all. I had been counting on–surprising her. But I will still have some surprises.” He fanged in a big smile. The Th’nashi lost and regrew new fangs on an average of four times a year; the clean new ivory looked very out of place in his hungry mouth, with its mossy teeth. The man stank of unwashed flesh and careless toileting and the last several meals he had had; I noticed that even the Kaiser stood apart from him, meaning that he offended even human noses. In fact, Steffi had mentioned that Todeschlagi had a good sense of smell for Th’nashi–as good as a good humani: I wondered that the humans could stand this man at all, especially as his outer soul dripped of even worse.
And they were going to give Lynn to this human abyss? She was frozen with the sudden realization. I felt dizzy. I wanted this to be a nightmare; I wanted to go home.