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“Sir? Phone.” Devon was perturbed. I burped, glad that my barbecue had come up through my front half. Pharaoh really should patent that tummy-rubbing thing. Terry scowled, but we all were grateful that Contract had given us the evening off while we entertained our a’thanila guests.

Dante was helping Lynn into her sweater, and Rita had already been sent off home with a mass of foil-wrapped leftovers. Terry took the phone Devon handed him and held up a hand, y’rai’ing Dante into a wait-a-minute.

“Oh, hey Meeze. What’s up? . . .Nope, should I care? . . .The what? The WHO?” He sat straight up, eyes like saucers. “Where is he now? What the hell is he doing here? . . . His nephew? Is that for real?” He mouthed something to Sasha that I couldn’t catch, but which made Sasha freeze.

Terry put his hand over the phone. “Dante, swing back when you get Lynn settled.” He y’rai’ed him toward the door. The big blond took the hint.

“Come, Lynn. I’ll pop my head in here later.” They were gone.

As soon as they were out of ping range, Terry went back on the phone. “They were just here. The Tarragons. They went home with Dante.” He looked around and spotted Pharaoh and I curled up on the couch. “Pharaoh’s here. Do you–”

Pharaoh interjected, “Is there something special about our guest I’m not supposed to know about?” He batted his eyes. Terry growled, a real vampire growl caused by his vibrating his hemaepoeita, the little organ under his chest that processed Sasha’s blood every other night or so.

“Never mind, Meeze. Let’s save time and deal him in. Now, he didn’t say he was headed over here, did he? . . . Good. . . . Have a cub sign out a car and drive you over. Pronto, as you say.” He hung up and buried his head in his hands, then looked toward the kitchen, where Joel was doing the dishes, Devon having drawn the short straw to scrub the grill outside. Pharaoh waved a sheet of spell at the door and my ears flattened by reflex. Joel’s little clinks and splashes and humming stopped as if a radio had been turned off. We were soundproof now.

“The Kaiser of Todeschlag just showed up to tour the Pit. He’s in town for the weekend because his nephew is giving a big talk at MIT tomorrow night.” Terry looked at Pharaoh. “This spells out ‘Grail slavery’ for Lynn.”

I could feel the sorcerer’s alarm. “Say not so. She isn’t even home yet–and I gather the idea is to keep it that way?”

Sasha shook his head. “Not only is that cutting into her rights as a Th’nashi, but it’s political suicide if–no, when the Kaiser finds out we’ve been keeping her away from him. Sooner or later the truth comes out. It always does, and I can’t even begin to figure out the ramifications of an archimago being more or less at war with the head of a House.”

Pharaoh said, “Tell Sean McPherson. If Firenzi can protect her–”

“No!” snapped Terry. “That will only complicate things. I won’t have Aria–Lynn, I mean–made into some political toy.”

“She already is, if you’re right about everything. Moreover, she’s being played for a chump. I say we should bring her home–tell her everything–and let her make her own decisions.” Pharaoh’s tone was icy. “This isn’t like our other damsel in distress.” He gestured to me. “We can’t keep two women–and yes, in a very few years Rita will be a woman–locked safe up in the house. And there isn’t any surgery which will rescue them.” He looked at Sasha. “Is it both of them? What House is Rita?”

Sasha shook his head. “I grabbed her glass tonight. We’ll have that answer tomorrow morning.”

Pharaoh said, “I know the very term ‘Grail slavery’ is enough to make one sick. But does anybody know how the Kaiser construes it? How does he treat his Grails?”

Sasha said, “I know he makes the Order and Chatte’d’garcon sign contracts if they use any, say for antivenin production–oh, yes, Toadies secrete both Toxins K and F, remember, and in large quantities. It’s a lot easier to use a Toadie Grail as a donor than a toxic Fang.” I reflected that Terry had probably been lucky that he went to jail that romantic night. If he had bitten Lynn, lacking the natural resistances of Houses Knightsblood, Firenzi, or Todeschlag itself–Terry was House Proinsias, like most Irish Th’nashi–it would have killed him in seconds. Unless he’d happened to be carrying the fragile and expensive antivenin, but somehow that seemed to be too organized an idea for the junkie he’d been at the time.

Terry asked, “Do you know any?”

Sasha shrugged. “Not sure. To paraphrase my role model, I’m a doctor, not a sorcerer. I can’t tell a Todeschlagi Grail from a humani, and neither can you, fancy-ass archimagisterial anointing package notwithstanding. Did you get any hits?” This was to Pharaoh, who had his Lion cell phone/organizer/toy thing out. It was hooked up to the Lion database via technology Chatte’d’garcon hadn’t leaked to the general public yet.

“No, although I can’t swear for my personal contacts. I don’t keep them racially organized,” Pharaoh almost snapped. “You asked, I’m assuming, whether he were coming over here, and were told he’s not, am I right?” Terry nodded. “Well, how about issuing him an official invitation at some time the Tarragons are well out of the picture? Let’s get a feel for the man. And who knows, maybe he’ll be nice enough to bring his Grails with him.”

The back door opened, and when Pharaoh felt the air pressure change, he lifted the corner of his spell. Meeze was heard exchanging pleasantries with the cubs. He had been invited to dinner, but had begged off, claiming “Lion stuff” as Terry put it. Now he poked his head in to the dining room.

“Is this too solemn for me to grab some leftovers? Dining hall had franks and beans tonight. Too gassy for me. I’m running on peanut butter and jelly.”

Terry waved. “Sure, Meeze, go ahead and see what’s left. I sent some of it off with the Tarragons. I think we’re out of ribs, but I did three whole chickens worth too. Lynn asked where the army was, which is cold hard proof she’s never been around Lions before.” The redhead heh’ed, and in a couple of minutes emerged with a plate. Leftovers weren’t encouraged, as enough people were in and out of the huge fridge to make any such confusing in a hurry, so Meeze had also grabbed the tub of potato salad so as to finish its contents. I burped again, reminding myself to just ignore the good smell.

He tucked in as the situation was explained to him. Then he shook his head. “Too risky to have him come here. The best place in Cambridge will be the talk itself. The Kaiser is trying to butter the nephew up to come work for him, so he’ll be there tomorrow night. There’ll be a reception–social schmooze time.”

Terry shook his head. “No. I have my limits, and anybody who knows anything about me will know that I don’t do lectures. It’ll look too suspicious, sailing in with half my court to hear somebody talk about the mating habits of flatfish.”

“Uh, it’s thermodynamics.”

“Even worse.” I turned a giggle into a burp. Like a lot of smart people, Terry worked very hard against anything that seemed remotely intellectual if he thought it might be boring.

The archimago rolled his pale gray eyes. “Why not throw a party here?”

“Because the Tarragons live across the street, and von Falkenrath’s security almost slid something up my royal Firenzi butt this afternoon as it was. I foresee him possibly sending out a team to canvass the surrounding area–and one of them is a very good sorcerer.” Meeze fished out an olive and looked around for me, but Pharaoh fended it off with a hand.

“She has three behind the TV as it is, and is as full as a tick.”

“Which is bad for her system. It’s still not up to full speed. Pharaoh’s been rubbing her tummy for twenty minutes now,” groused Sasha. Thank Bast the man had never had any human offspring. He would never have let them breathe their own air.

“That is the most grotesquely spoiled cat I’ve ever met,” said Meeze. Terry and Sasha both complained in those loud voices that meant they suspected he was right, but I just burped again. The man was only expressing an honest opinion.

I was getting sleepy. I struggled into a sitting position and immediately felt the barbecue shifting southwards. Oh dear. I wanted to hear the end of this conversation, but I might miss some from being in the pan. In fact . . . I slid off Pharaoh’s lap and jogged into the bathroom in the office as quickly as dignity and my creaking midsection would allow.

When I re-emerged, it was a done deal. Dante had come back while I was gone and had taken the news about his new friend’s Th’nashiness in stride. He had good news: He had already made his own dinner party for the next evening between Lynn and the child psychologist. They would be far away from any snooping Todeschlagi. “We were hoping to borrow a cub to watch Rita. She’s too far away from so’fir’aa to worry about, so she can be here in all safety.”

I flicked my ears at Pharaoh in the way I had taught him meant, “define, please.” He complied by muttering something to the knitting which had replaced me in his lap that looked like counting or something innocuous, but in reality sounded loud and clear in my ear.

“So’fir’aa is Th’nashi puberty. You either turn into a Fang–a vampire–or your body starts producing a lot of the hy’fa fragment in your blood, ready to be bitten.” I camouflaged a nod with a yawn to signify I’d gotten the message.

Meeze said, “I’m sure Joel can pitch in.”

“No,” said Terry quickly. “Let’s give poor Joel the night off. Instead, let’s just have some of the gamers on. We can plug the whole bunch into the Nintendo. Or the Playstation, or whatever we have in there.”

“I still think it’s so wrong that a media head like you doesn’t game,” murmured Meeze. I stifled a snicker. The truth was, he had tried a number of times, but was really bad at it.

And so it was. I hid in all my best spots in succession that next day, as the heavy housework crew came by. Sasha sent his tux out to the cleaners. Perhaps the most elaborate preparation was assigning Pharaoh to just happen to run into Lynn in Harvard Square and walk her home, hanging about and chitchatting while she got ready for her dinner with Dante and his friend, and then walking her over there (Dante lived about half a mile away), all so he could shield her with a spell that would “humanify” her to anybody looking. They passed right by the house and it made me blink, I can tell you.

Rita was only too happy to be tucked up with Bart and Matt for the evening. The loo in Terry’s office connected to the guard room on one side, so the visiting dignitary wouldn’t even realize she was there. If he did, he’d be truthfully told that she was being babysat, and if he happened to ask more about it, Terry had enough half-truth on tap to bore the average casual seeker. This included that Rita was House Chatte’d’garcon, of all things—Sasha was vibrating about that. Still on the Official Secrets List was that her blood father was in fact a son of the House itself. His brother was in line to inherit the Headship.

“So we’ve got House politics on top of us anyway,” Terry had sighed when Sasha gave him the news. “I wish there was some way I could get Lynn to confess about stepping out on Lafe so we could begin to take the temperature there—might be the very last straw if this Chattie bastard draws her into another custody battle, this one in Contract.”

“No, that’s the least of our worries. You keep forgetting that you’re the archimago. You can swing in with a decision on that one if it comes to pass. Although God forbid you do one of the things you’re anointed to do.” Sasha was in an evil mood. His assistant, Taillefer Araimfres, was running things at the morgue that evening, and despite poor Dr. Araimfres being excellent at it, Sasha’s greatest character flaw was that he was a lousy boss: a control freak micromanager. A couple of cases were being prepped that night that Sasha had had his own heart set on, which meant he would go in extra early on Monday morning and re-do almost everything Dr. Araimfres had done. I had met this quiet ginger Lion once and had liked him—I could tell he owned a ferret. So I told him in detail that he needed to go get a job where he was appreciated, but all he had done was to give my ears a surreptitious rumple and tell me I was a pretty kitty. Enough to madden one, sometimes.

But instead of grousing back, Terry mumbled that there was that, if it came to it. A bad sign, if he were so worried that he’d consider pulling rank. My daddies tied each others’ bow ties and—unusual thing—gave each other kisses for good luck. Then the doorbell rang and I was off downstairs at a reasonable fraction of my usual speed. We were on!