Tags

, ,

I shook my head to clear it as hard as I could, then I shook it again in dismay: My yearning was making me hallucinate. Then I realized that Hans was rigid with attention, and at last the Kaiser was turning with a frown toward the passageway outside of the room.

It hadn’t been a hallucination: Sean Michael, Lion McPherson, the Prince of Firenzi came into the room, with Pharaoh Quartermain right behind him. Pharaoh was dressed in the clothes I’d sometimes seen in his gym bag: black pants, low boots, and a sleeveless white shirt. Fighting clothes. I could smell blood. Not his.

The Kaiser spun with a snarl. “What are you doing here?”

Sean bowed. “In the States, we have an old saying: ‘When Lions come calling, they call to collect.’ Loses something in translation, but we’ll try to be clear.”

The Todeschlagi sorcerer Lion lunged low, a spellfront crackling through the air like a wave of wind bending grain. It got caught in a fine spiderweb of light and erupted in a pyrotechnic display, the smell of burning dust filling the room. Pharaoh laughed. Then the Toadie clutched his head and screamed. A filament of his own spell had rebounded on him somehow, and he was wrapped in a membrane that glittered like new plastic with oil on it. It faded away, leaving him half-curled in a corner, moaning. Pharaoh went over to him and curled an aristocratic lip. He bent down and took something from the man’s shirt. He straightened, tossed my mouse up in the air, caught it, and put it in one of his pockets with a nod to me.

Rudolf dove at Sean, proving he hadn’t recognized him. Bad move. Even I knew what would happen next on that one. Always understated, the Prince of Firenzi was just wearing jeans and a sweater, but he didn’t need fighting clothes, because he was rumored to be an even more talented gater than the Crucio himself. Sean stretched out a lazy-looking hand, and as his palm brushed along Rudolf’s back, the German disappeared. Bast alone knew where Rudolf had gone.

I liked Sean. Just because he was Meeze’s cousin didn’t mean there was much resemblance beyond the wicked dance in their eyes–Sean’s mother had been a Black British girl, or so I had heard, and had run away to the States when the noble House refused to acknowledge the pregnancy. She had died having him, and the humani midwife had adopted Sean, none the wiser. Still, he looked royal–tall, dark, with long curls escaping his Lion braid to frame a shrewd, handsome face. He had been a District Attorney in California before taking over the Headship of the House, and only fools tangled with him.

Apparently the Kaiser was more of a fool than he looked. “You intrude here, my Firenzi brother. This is House business, and it need not involve you unless you have come to apologize for any part you have had in withholding my property from me.”

At “apologize,” Sean’s crisp-cut eyebrows rose and he looked genuinely delighted. “Property? What property? Eureka belongs to my brother in the Order Sasha Van der Linden. She must have misled you–she doesn’t have permission to stay out after school, so she’ll be coming home with me.” He made eye contact with me and bent down, wiggling his fingers and clicking his tongue. I made a beeline into his arms.

“Lynn!” I panted. “Save Lynn too!” Sean paid no attention to my mew; he just stroked me, making a shh-ing noise.

“Got the mouse, Pharaoh?” His companion nodded. “Sloppy, but fortuitous, that. You neutralized most of the tags we’d put on Lynn–although you missed mine, my Todeschlagi brother–and you wiped the kitty clean, but you completely overlooked the little widget Pharaoh puts into his mice so we know which couch they’ve been kicked under. Saved us some time. My tag lets me call Lynn to me–but his was a nice shiny locater beacon.”

Pharaoh stepped forward, mayhem in his eyes, outer soul ice. “Lynn, are you all right?” He shot Steffi a look of measured calculation that had Hans on his feet, growling. Lynn stood up.

“Yes, so far. The . . . Kaiserin here has explained a lot of stuff to me. I’d have rather had it from all of you, though.”

He gave a little Japanese bow, as if to admit she was right. “We were working on it for quite soon. We hadn’t planned on your joyriding off to Germany on us.”

The revolting Graf rumbled, “But you seem to have misunderstood some vital facts about the lady’s ‘joyride.’ She has been brought home to her rightful owner, the Kaiser. He in turn is loaning her to me. I know nothing of any cat, but you are intruding on my time with the lady.” He stepped forward–or tried to. I don’t know which exact part of his anatomy Pharaoh was squooshing, but it looked miserable.

“Let me go!”

“Graf Geiger,” Sean almost cooed, “we are doing you a great service by preventing you from laying unchaste hands upon the person of a Lion of Mercy.”

“I want none of you! Give me the woman, or I warn you I shall take my anger out on her person, if you care.”

He flew backwards and hit the wall so hard that a crack appeared in the plaster.

“Oops,” said Pharaoh.

To do him credit, the reeking man was on his feet and was gearing up to charge Pharaoh like a bull. Pharaoh let him–at least, he let his flailing fists brush some part of the air he was breathing.

“Tsk,” said Pharaoh absently, as he stepped out of the way. “Seanie, did you see that? The nasty man laid hands upon my leonine person.”

“Tsk,” agreed Sean.

Pharaoh leaned over as if to tie his shoe, the other leg extended behind him. It made full contact with Geiger’s chin, and over he went.

“God, but you need to bathe,” Pharaoh muttered. He enclosed the quivering hulk in a bubble of air that at once made the room a more pleasant place to be.

“What I had meant,” Sean continued in the same pleasant near-hum, “is that you’ve played fast and loose with this Lion of Mercy.” He indicated the baffled Lynn. “Fy’foxi. Not yours. Ours. Since sperm met egg. Congratulations, Herr Kaiser–you’ve just stolen a Grail from the Order. Historically speaking, it’s been a capital offense. Let’s hope that ignorance of the law, etc. stands you in good stead. At any rate, you’ll be using a private service for your House guard from here on out, mm?” He stepped forward and offered Lynn his arm, still holding me in the other, and looking over his shoulder at Pharaoh.

“Coming?”

“How can I refuse a free trip home? And Germany is always so dismal this time of year.” Pharaoh came over to us and put his hand up to scratch my ears. And–

–we were home. Back in Terry’s study, with him sitting behind his desk looking surprised–

–and a huge Todeschlagi standing by the window. Over Sasha, who was sitting on the windowseat, eyes hollow.

I snapped. I don’t know what I was thinking. I flew out of Sean’s arms and straight at the Toadie’s face, claws extended. Luck was there in the room with us, though, because once more I found myself floating in midair, Pharaoh yelling, “He’s a good guy, Eureka! He’s one of us!”

Oh.

When I calmed down (which took a little bit, as I just clung to Sasha and whimpered for a while, during which he claimed he didn’t whimper back but was lying) I was introduced to Rainer Nachtgang Hermann, Lion von Richter, who came from New York and was pretty much the heaviest guard the Cohort had to put on the archimago in light of the recent shenanigans. Nacht was a gentleman and a scholar about it, and even petted me afterwards. Carefully.

Meanwhile, Lynn was sobbing so hard in Terry’s arms that after about ten minutes of it, Sasha faded off and came back with a shot, which she didn’t even notice. I only noticed because he handed me to Pharaoh while he did it, then took me back while I shivered myself into a fitful sleep.

Daddy. Home.

When I awoke, I was still half in Sasha’s lap, curled up on one of the big leather chairs in the study. He had the dregs of a screwdriver in a thick crystal glass next to him on the table, which meant it had been a true red-letter day for him in terms of stress. Sean and Pharaoh had the windowseat, with Meeze sitting half astride the chair that matched ours. Terry still had an arm around Lynn on the little couch. The office had never been so crowded; I could ping Nacht von Richter standing guard outside of it.

“ . . . But now we know that Toadie Grails can cloak their sorc vibe really well,” Terry was saying. “Doesn’t that give us a leg up?”

Pharaoh swirled the ice in the bottom of his Coke. “It’s Hobson’s choice as to whether it was John Salvatori’s bad in not checking in with the District Sorc’s office to register as a Master–and remember, it’s not required everywhere; we’re just regulation-heavy–or my bad in still being distracted from our tiffy and not deep-pinging a stranger.” Humans often likened his high cheekboned face to looking like a cat’s, and indeed he looked most attractive when miserable like this. I hopped down and went over to him. He gathered me up and for the first time buried his face in my fur. His huge green-gray eyes were damp. “Glad you’re okay. Bastards,” he muttered.

I put it together that they were trying to figure out what to do with Salvatori–from the Toadie’s point of view, he was just dotting an “i” and crossing a “t” by reporting an unregistered Grail to his Kaiser; and the horrible part was that if Lynn hadn’t had the extra fillip that made her a fy’foxi–and hence Order–he would have been right, at least in Contract law. He had been questioned with professional thoroughness that I suspected had bordered on zeal, and had nothing to do with my abduction–that was all Kaiser-side.

Poor Knute Riddersley had also been dragged out of his sickbed and interviewed. The Councillor for Culture was a good man, and nobody seriously suspected him of any hankypanky at all–in fact, when he found that Salvatori was betraying a fellow into Grail slavery, he had been livid.

Beyond that, he was a stubborn member of House Windhaven, which had sheltered a number of Toadies fleeing the Contract pogrom, and he had told the Lion team where to stick it and that if it had come down to loyalty tests, he was resigning. Terry had sent him the most apologetic email possible and was trying to coax him out to tea for the next day. The next day! I looked at the big grandfather clock. It was only six p.m. Even counting my dead-out catnap, the whole adventure and aftermath had only taken five hours.

A messenger came for Sean with a little package. He held it up to Sasha and said, “This is the same sort of tag the rest of my friends have. It’s in a charmed cat treat. Shall I?”

Sasha choked. When Devon had come in with Terry that afternoon and found poor Joel unconscious in the entryway, the first thing they had done was call for me–they’d been thinking home invasion of a more routine sort, and had only begun to worry when the call to Pharaoh to pull my tag had produced bupkis. But the sorcerer had noticed in the process that one of the mice he had made for me was very, very far away. Even though Lynn had left her books and computer, the enormity of the true crime hadn’t even occurred to Terry. Not until my mouse had shown up in Germany.

Sean had been Pharaoh’s next call then, because he and Meeze had asked the Prince to put his fancy-schmancies on the Tarragons as the final fool-proof backup plan some weeks ago, and he had confirmed that Lynn was also in Germany. But instead of reaching through the leys and seizing her–which could be a terrifying experience even for Th’nashi expecting it–they decided to call instead; or as Sean put it, “to call collect.”

“Yes, brother. Please. And . . .” Sasha hesitated, then continued in a husky voice, “Thank you.”

Sean unwrapped the morsel of wax paper and proffered it to me. It smelled just like a small Italian meatball, and didn’t seem to have any sorcerous vapors arising from it, so I ate it. Nothing happened. I licked my whiskers and looked askance. Everybody laughed, with that sort of humor that is the best type, combining relief and a sort of joy at the normalcy of the universe after all.

“You mean I’ve eaten one of those?” asked Lynn. Her voice was a ghost of itself, from a combination of all the crying all afternoon and Sasha’s shot.

“Yes,” Sean said. “So have Meeze and Dante, of course, being my cousins, Eamon and our daughter, for obvious reasons, and Pharaoh, who wanted to see what it was like.”

“How do they work?”

For the first time, Sean looked a little uncomfortable. “There’s a small–a very small–amount of, well, me inside there. A sliver of my stomach lining. It’s charmed to form a little island inside others’ stomachs–no discomfort involved, though. Thus, I can always find . . . myself.”

“Oh,” said Lynn. “And, ew. And thank you,” she said in a softer voice.

I agreed with her whole-heartedly.

The office door burst open, and Rita ducked under Nacht von Richter’s huge arm. “Mommy! Where have you been all afternoon? I’ve been emailing you and everything!”

Lynn stepped back into Supermom with nary a quiver. “Busy, sweetie. Tell me,” she said, gathering the eyes of the other adults, “do you still like meatballs?”

Sean said, “Rita loves my meatballs.” He smiled, and Lynn relaxed. For a moment, I thought there were going to be more waterworks, but she grabbed it by its scruff.

“Are we having meatballs for dinner?” Rita asked. As if on cue, my own stomach grumbled, undoubtedly piqued at having to wrestle with the feisty scrap of human DNA. Everybody laughed again. Sean bowed to her, and headed out to the kitchen. The office began to empty. Dante came in the front door, and Lynn fell into his arms and sobbed all over again, which took Rita aback and made Terry’s eyes narrow.

He steered Rita along. “Go pester the cubs, halfpint. Mommy’s had a bad dissertation day. She’ll be fine after dinner.” His face met Dante’s and turned it into half a question.

Dante nodded. “Besides, then we have to explain to our newest little brother what it is to be a N’vai’tt of the Order. Should be shiny and distracting,” he added in a low tone. Terry nodded, unconvinced and worried and jealous. I wove around his ankles and told him to feed me. Sometimes shiny and distracting is my job too.

Advertisements