, ,

The Crucio was only in with Terry for seventeen minutes, but it was enough. Terry slammed out to put the tea kettle on; through the open door I could just hear Dante sitting at the desk making phone calls. They were assembling the Council. I hopped off Devon’s lap as he got up to help prepare things.

This should be good, I thought in anticipation, but in sad reality it was a huge letdown. After five hours of arguing, the status remained quo. The Crucio could go screw; Nova Terra was keeping its hands on the purse for now.

“It’s not like he can give orders. He said so himself,” Terry said with belligerent defensiveness.

“But it’s not like His Lordship goes about making timid suggestions either,” pointed out Dante in a weary tone. Terry had gone so far as to accuse him of supporting the engineering solution because his father was the head of the firm with the most attractive bid. He apologized for it almost as soon as it was out of his mouth, but Dante had had enough at that point and had snapped that it was that level of administrative reasoning that made him the fine archimago he was. The room had hunkered down and gone very small, and three people at the table noticed my dismay and reassured me with their outer souls–reassuring themselves at the same time; I felt a little squozled from the simultaneous pressure.

Pharaoh was there, of course, and was what I’d never seen in him before: what Meeze called “batshit furious.” He told Terry all about himself in terms of his utter inability to understand that sorcery was the lifeblood underpinning Contract, and mocked his stupidity over the basic equation of the more sorcerers playing at being steel girders, the fewer sorcerers available to, say, administer a precisely-delivered microstroke to somebody who’d seen some clumsy ass bite their neighbor in full daylight. The room was also very quiet for this, but the best/worst part was when Pharaoh did what the Art of Rhetoric calls descending to ad hominem, meaning he made it personal, and said that if Terry really cared about Nova Terra’s resources, he wouldn’t have sucked so many of them down on his trip to the pen.

Pharaoh was very angry. He was out of his chair, poised to take it right back. Problem was, Terry didn’t know even as much about Pharaoh’s personal life as I did, so he had no material. It was probably just as well: Terry carried an illegal gun (which was on Sasha’s long list of grievances), just to be a badass, and practiced with it at the range to the Lions’ discomfort–but one rainy afternoon Pharaoh had told me a little about his life before Nova Terra. He had been the District Sorcerer of Badlands, meaning the deserty cowboy places, and had laid out three would be gunslingers in those canyons.

So what Terry did instead was accuse him of being lazy, and if there was a shortage of sorcery, it was up to the District Sorcerer to make good. Pharaoh called him a — (just that, meaning he opened his mouth and raised a finger, but nothing came out, because his brain was in gear despite his temper) and gated out in a huff. Good thing I was hiding in back of the TV instead of on his knitting bag.

All in all, it was a nasty meeting, and I predicted it would take a lot of soaking in the tub for people to get over it.

Pharaoh gated back in later on that evening. Terry was down in the tub ignoring the fact that Sasha had gone back to work so as to ignore him, and I suspected at least half the Council were having a post-meeting venting session over at Dante’s. I had better ears and a sharper outer soul than the cubs, who had caught the zeitgeist and had been quarreling over what to watch on TV all night, so I padded into the study.

“Ah, good; I was wondering how to get your attention. His Nibs is in the tub, yes? Anybody else home?”

“Devon. Joel.”

“Joel?” My best pronunciation of “Joel” and the Cat for “cat pan” were lamentably close. I nodded.

“Good.” He tossed off a sorcery which pressed upon my ears until I swallowed and made them pop. It was a silencing spell. The study had one charmed into its door, but Joel had just enough sorcery that he’d notice it being used.

“I just wanted to thank you a hundred times over for having the presence of mind–and unselfishness–to bring the Tarragons up to His Lordship. Of course old Ratty had the answer, he knows all sorts of things–don’t ever call him Ratty, it’s his family nickname–and now I’m in an awkward position.” He sat on the floor across from me, his outer soul in turmoil.

“Can you think of any way to get this information across that won’t either give you away or give me credit for a discovery I didn’t make? Because I can’t.”

I had already wondered about this, but Pharaoh taking credit didn’t bother me at all. It was the way of things, since Puss in Boots and long before that.

“You do it. I approve.”

He smiled, but was still uncomfortable about it, bless his honest soul. I went up to him and rubbed my chin on his, kneading his chest with my forepaws. He snuggled my shoulders.

“It’s nobody’s business what I talk to the Crucio about. Dante at least knows that he and I go back a long way; I’ll just steal your lines and say I decided to bounce the problem off him because he was handy.”

I purred encouragement.

He rubbed my ears. “And then I don’t suppose you have any grand thoughts on how to break it to Lynn.”

I did. “Dante. Friends, man woman friends. Yes?”

“Yeahhh, trouble with that is, it gets a little daytime romance there.” What was wrong with that? I cocked my head.

“Handsome vampire getting to like a lady, has dreadful secret, makes clean breast to lady before falling on one knee. She’s going to expect the falling on one knee part.” I wanted to argue around this, but he had a point. Not Dante, then.

“You!” Then I remembered. “No. Terry. Terry Lynn kittens before.”

“Grad school is hardly kittens, love.”

Damn that unattainable spell. We really needed to work on his vocabulary. “Kittens mating time. Before. Terry tell me. Lynn tell me. New York.” Many cat owners have recorded our saying proper nouns, with detractors saying it was just within our repertoire of yowling, and “N’Yaaahhh’k” indeed was yowly, but he got the drift.

“I’ll be damned! That throws a new light on some weird subtexts I’ve wondered about. There you are then. Eureka, we’ve done it! No, you’ve done it!”

“Crucio,” I pointed out, and he hugged me.

We agreed that it needed to wait a few days until Pharaoh and Terry made it up–which wouldn’t be a big deal, both of them being the sunny temperament type–and then maybe a couple more until the very idea of the Crucio’s input wouldn’t set Terry’s back up as a matter of course. He gated home, and I went back in to the cubs.

They were watching “Buffy” reruns, and as usual arguing about whether or not Angel would have made a good Lion. I thought I’d fast for two days to see Buffy smack down with either Pharaoh or Eamon, who were fighting masters–and toss in a mouse to see it with nebbishy Taillefer Araimfres, Sasha’s assistant, who was not only a fighting master but the one who specialized in those Lions–mostly Todeschlagi–who could fight at extra high speed. So the evening ended in content. I felt very proud of myself.

The next morning was Tuesday, and we had our usual breakfast Council meeting. People were subdued and held themselves down to a barebones recitation of the necessities. They were politer than usual because there was a newbie there, one John Salvatori, who had just come over from Europe to advise on immigration–American Contract was always getting a slow, constant leak from the Old Countries. Salvatori had just been hired on by Knute Riddersley, the Councillor for Culture, who had a bad cold made worse by last night’s bickering, and Knute had sent him on alone today. He was a nondescript older man whose main interest for me was that “Salvatori” notwithstanding, he was a Todeschlagi Grail, the first I’d met other than Lynn (and the Kaiser and Kaiserin). Presumably they got rented out for other things than as blood donors and sex slaves.

Tuesdays had become extra special because Lynn had taken to coming over in the afternoon to work on her dissertation in the peace and quiet of the huge mahogany dining room. If I were there, she would make occasional comments to me, which was how I was beginning to learn a lot of otherwise useless information about the Other in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Terry pretended to her that the Council meetings all had to do with the charitable foundation that handled the bulk of his fortune, and so she thought nothing of them all trailing out as she came in, completely ignorant of the fact that Devon had called out, “Ia tseradiae!” before letting her through the door.

Salvatori gave her a sort of fish-eyed look as he passed her, which worried me, until I recalled that the Shield of Adamant protected her from other normal Toadies as well. Unless they were master sorcerers, I reminded myself. But this guy didn’t give off the sorc vibe–and if he were a sorcerer, he would have had to check in with Pharaoh’s office as part of his own immigration, and I doubted Pharaoh would have then just let him loose on the Council. I put the fish-eye down to either sizism or racism–as did Lynn, whose eyes narrowed as she set up her computer.

But something about her seemed to niggle at Salvatori; as he left, I heard him ask Dante who she was. An old friend of the archimago’s, he was told, and he left it at that; but I still made a note to try to talk to Pharaoh about it next chance I got.

Lynn settled down with her laptop and a back-breaking stack of very old books, and I curled up to kick around my favorite catnip mouse, which was the one Pharaoh had made for me when I’d gotten spayed. There was quiet in the house for several hours.

I must have dozed off in a happy catnip haze, because I was awakened by the doorbell. It was Salvatori, who told Joel he was missing a glove. He popped his head into the dining room, but instead of doing anything sensible such as returning to his seat, or so much as asking Lynn if she’d seen it, he opened a slick-looking cell phone and said, “Ja, sie ist hier.” In a moment, I felt two massive presences gate onto the doorstep.

Uh oh. My German was pretty much limited to “Ja wohl, Herr Commandant,” but I didn’t like this at all. Joel opened the door and cried out in pain at once. There wasn’t much of a scuffle, and I snarled at the bullies who had taken out their own little brother while invading his post. Or could these Lions be held to any standards at all? They stood admiring the dining room; I recognized the sorcerer who had brought Hans into the party.

Lynn had heard Joel cry out–more so, she had pinged it, whether she had the vocabulary to say as much or not. She was standing at the table, pale with fear.

“Who are you? Why, you’re Lions–no, you can’t be Lions,” she said, sounding the disgust I felt. “Is Joel all right? What do you want?”

“We are the Lions of the Kaiser of Todeschlag, who wishes very much to make your acquaintance. It would seem to be several years overdue. Did you really think you could hide forever?” the non-sorc said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

The non-sorc gave a brutal laugh.

“So you say.” (The bastard could ping her truth as well as I could.) “And if it turns out that you are just some poor a’thanila left homeless because you were invisible, it will go better for you. But not for the Archimago of Nova Terra, hiding you here in his very house. The Kaiser is furious. Come along, meine Frau.”

“But what about–” Lynn was smart enough to bite the word “Rita” off in time, although in truth the goons wouldn’t have dared to lay a finger on a Chattie–or would have packed her off with a grovel as soon as they’d run her DNA for themselves and found out that she was a daughter of the ruling house.

No such protections for Lynn; no relatives had turned up for her at all–which, Sasha said, probably meant that whoever had dumped her on a doorstep hadn’t meant to be found afterward. The irony was that they might well be nobility: it took pull to stay out of the Chattie database.

In fact, I was the only protection Lynn had, and I opted to freeze like a bunny. I knew my claws and teeth were useless against thugs who could immobilize little Joel with a couple of blows. Besides, somebody had to tell Pharaoh what had happened!

But to my horror, the sorcerer stepped forward and scooped me up. I was too far in shock to protest, holding myself limp and wide-eyed in his arms. Did he know cats were sentient and meant to remove the only witness? I began to struggle furiously, but only for a moment, as he held me away with the spell Meeze had used on Duke that long-ago afternoon: I fought against empty air. Had I survived the Roamans’ closet, only to come to this?

Lynn gasped in shock at seeing me so suspended. Tears filled her voice. “Oh my God! Please, put her down! Don’t hurt her! I’ll come quietly.”

The sorcerer grinned. “I know you will. But she will too. The Kaiser is on new medication, and he has given the Kaiserin permission for a cat. It is only fitting that one she so admired be her own now. It will make a point with the archimago; he will feel a little of the sting of having somebody steal what is his own.” He leaned over and put my mouse in his pocket.

There was the cold; the song of Bast in the utmost distance did nothing to warm that. When it was over a few seconds later, I felt myself dropped to the floor. I raced to Lynn, who gathered me in her arms, sobbing. We and the two Lions were in a well-appointed room looking out over a strange city. I recognized the tall needle in the skyline from a documentary.

We were in Berlin.