, ,

Lynn found the poise to remind Pascal of a certain drunken evening back at the University of Wisconsin, when he had been visiting some older freshman friends and she had gone out for some beers–and then some other intoxicants–with her young classmates. Lynn had taken some time off to work her way through school, and as a result she was a 24-year-old freshman, three years married to Lafe Tarragon, which she was already beginning to view as a possible mistake.

The irony was that they were trying to get pregnant. Todeschlagi couldn’t get pregnant with humani, and Lafe was beginning to claim Lynn was barren, “defective,” as she said, still bitter. Lafe had had two girlfriends who had ended up getting abortions, and so he knew there was nothing wrong with him. And then there he was, this deep-voiced young Texan, whose outer soul spoke to hers in a way Lafe’s never could. He told her he was 19 (he was 17), and caution fell by the wayside. She had always been certain somehow that Rita was his and not Lafe’s.

By the time this was sorted out, Rita was home from the movie. She had been good enough for the ice cream and was at her best and most polite when introduced around–Pascal was presented as himself, with no confusing description added, and she failed to notice that he stared at her for the rest of the afternoon. I was sure that it would  turn out all right in the end: Lafe Tarragon was too busy dodging the child support issue to pay any more attention to the younger of his escaped trophies, and Pascal would spoil her senseless–if, however, Adrian would let him. In general, Rita was over-supervised, in both her and my opinion–but then, I suppose that if there were people who would kidnap an archimago’s cat to make a political sneer, the little girl of his good friend needed to be safe as well.

As everybody was leaving, Etienne buttonholed Terry, who had emerged from his office with Dante, still scowling.

“You have *snf* got to either change your vacuum or *snf* get more competent staff. I’ve been miserable *snf* all afternoon. It’s as if that damn cat was in the *snf* room.” He sneezed. I sorta felt bad.

That was the last exciting thing that happened until the next week, which was Christmas, which was all it was hyped up to be, in my opinion. Miles of different sorts of string and oceans of rustly paper! And all those beautiful toys hanging from an actual real live in-the-house tree! True, I got yelled at a whole lot, even by Sasha, and some creep who shall be nameless got the idea from a certain veterinarian that the thing to do was to pass out squirt bottles and soak me for exploring my environment. Sadists. That tree was the most marvelous thing I’d ever seen in my year of life, but . . . I hated getting wet.

“And you wanted to have the tree up early this year,” Sasha said to Terry, after scoring a sharp hit on my backside.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Next year I get to win for a change. She’ll be older then too. Yeah, you better wash, you furry maniac.” Terry brandished his own bottle. It was beneath me to notice this.

It was late Christmas night, and all the wonderful mess was cleared away. My daddies were cuddled on the couch, each with a glass of eggnog in one hand and a squirt bottle in the other. They were having entirely too much fun. I started giving the tree a wide berth, which they found funny as hell, and high-fived each other at. Humph,  I thought, and decided to look in on the cubs, who had been given two or three new games to play and were deep in the middle of some forbidding-looking fairy-tale forest. No joy there. I decided to go to bed early, but stopped halfway up the stairs. My outer soul was picking up something odd.

There was a rap at the door.

I heard a good-natured swear from the guard room, and Matt peeled himself off. I stayed at his heels, poised to flee. I knew who it felt like it was out there, but what did it mean? He looked through the door and his outer soul went cold. He went in to consult with Terry and Sasha.

Sasha ran upstairs and got his gun, and Terry hit the panic-button charm that had Pharaoh gating into the study within no more than ten seconds.

There was another little rap at the door. It sounded desperate. So we opened it.

Steffi and Hans stood shivering on our doorstep.

“Merry Christmas,” she said. “I know the timing leaves much to be desired, but is there any chance you would grant us asylum?” She looked around at our faces, even mine. Tears came into her eyes, and she looked over her shoulder. “It is just that this is the safest place I could think of. Please, please; there must be something you can do for us; for all of us. Please?”

Terry took a deep breath. He may not have been a master politician, but I could see him spelling it out for himself. Then he said something rude under his breath, and opened the door wider.

“Come on in, ma’am. Steffi, right? I take it you’ve quit the Kaiserin part.”

She laughed. “You are so right.” She eeked as she stepped all the way in and saw Sasha still wary with his weapon, a small sleek silhouette of death in the study. He didn’t holster it until Pharaoh reassured him that there was nobody else in the vicinity, and I was just as glad. I chose his lap as Steffi started to tell her story.

Things around us were starting to feel more normal after a few minutes–Joel got down a couple of mixing bowls for Hans to have some water and some leftovers; Steffi got some eggnog and complimented the tree, easing off her high-heeled slingbacks. All she had with her was her dog and a very large purse–she dumped it out to prove her candor–all it had in it besides purse-stuff was two sets of underwear.

“All I dared jam in.” Although she had been gated to the United States, she also had her passport–Swedish–and a thick bundle of other important-looking documents.

“I trust that this house has baffles which should defeat the spell which will fetch me home, yes?” Pharaoh nodded. She relaxed. “Good; I thought it would. That’s why this was my first choice. But I should not be missed for another little while or so.”

Pharaoh muttered under his breath and I could swear something in the air changed.“You can’t be gated out of here without my permission now. Not even the Prince of Firenzi can break this one. I had him try.”

She flashed him a huge grateful smile, and told us of her escape.

The Kaiser had elected to spend Christmas in the States with various bigwigs. At this moment, he was at a party in Boston in the King of Proinsias’ house. Steffi had feigned a headache and gone back to the hotel–and immediately left again, Hans in tow.

“I told the guards I would just take him on a walk around your Boston Commons, and they know that our walks are very long. They are not the Lions, who are still boycotting the Kaiser; they are hired men who were grumpy at being dragged around on Christmas. I told them I’d pull my panic tag for the sorcerer if I needed him, and they accepted that. I could hardly believe my luck. Thank God the little American money I had was enough to get me on the train. I can’t believe I’m here.”

I blinked. Even as she spoke, our house was surrounded by what pinged like a dozen people, and there was a thunderous knock on the door. So much for “another little while or so.”

“Now, you know that’s taking off paint,” complained Sasha.

Hans asked me, “Can your people keep her safe?”

“Oh please,” I said, with a yawn. Inside, I was terrified. The pounding continued.

Pharaoh sighed and said something under his breath that sounded like a proverb. There were a couple of cries of pain outside, and most of the men disappeared. The knocking stopped, then continued, although it sounded a little less bold.

“Do these idiots really not know how well archimagi are protected?” Pharaoh asked. “Especially archimagi who’ve had a recent security breach?” He went to the door and opened it. He didn’t look very threatening, standing there with his hands on his hips, wearing the loudest holiday sweater I’d ever seen and (I blinked) a brand-new pair of bunny slippers. (Those had to have come from Hiroshi. I didn’t know who else had the nerve.) But there was a sort of no-color rippling force shield in front of him. Every now and again it would throw out a fat spark, as if it were in a bad temper, and as one of the bunnies was tapping its toe, maybe it was.

We couldn’t ping a thing on the other side of the shield, so I ignored Sasha’s hiss calling me back, and went to look, sitting on the stairs behind Pharaoh so as to have a good vantage point while avoiding easy grabbing range. As I had expected, on the other side of the door was the Kaiser, with two other men who looked a bit wild-eyed. One was tapping at his phone and snarling at it in German because it didn’t seem to be connecting him to anybody.

“May I help you, Your Excellency?” purred Pharaoh.

“Where is she?” he demanded. He pushed against the shield but cried out in anger, shaking his hand as if it had been burned.

“Ah-ah-ah-ah,” Pharaoh warned. “Oh, by the way, everybody else you had trespass on our grounds is now in the clink over in Lion Country, awaiting interrogation. Their phones will have been confiscated.”

Terry came up behind him. He was as calm as he had been twenty minutes ago, when the biggest threat in his life was my going after a 19th century lace ornament. “You should skedaddle, Wilhelm. As of five minutes ago, there is no Grail slavery in the District of Nova Terra. I just abolished it, by executive fiat. I may have no control over anything else you do, but by thunder, any one of your Toadie Grails who asks one of our District Centers for asylum will get it, and you’ll find out just how long the Nova Terran claws are should you lay a finger on any of our citizens. No, make that my citizens. Get the picture, Willy?”

I wondered what this would do to Lynn’s membership in the Order, not to mention all of the other small permutations of more benign Grail slavery, such as a Grail daughter needing her father’s permission to marry. I’d always thought that one sounded kind of romantic. Whatever; it was over now. Terry never did things by halves if he really decided to get off his ass and do them. I decided I was proud of him. Moreover, underneath the shock, I could tell that Pharaoh and Sasha were proud of him too.

Pharaoh closed the door in the Kaiser’s face, then reopened it. “Within forty-eight hours the lady will come, under guard, to retrieve her reasonable personal effects. They will be undamaged, and you will not be there. I will be there. I don’t like you. Think it through. Good evening, and Happy Christmas.” He closed the door again while the Kaiser’s eyes were still popping. He turned to Terry and clapped him on the shoulder warmly. This turned into a hug and some whooping, and even Sasha had some hugging to do.

Steffi, however, was in shock, and just sat there fondling Hans’ ears, tears streaming down her face. Pharaoh came in and knelt at her feet.

“Did I give a reasonable ultimatum?” he asked. “You needn’t worry, you know. All the worrying is over. Now it’ll just be the usual tiresomeness of a divorce. And we’ll help you through that. I know some excellent people.” Hans gave a sudden lunge and licked his face, which made him look happy and embarrassed. He stood up, taking Steffi’s convulsive nods and sniffles as an affirmative.

“Meanwhile, I should go roust out Dante, because you’ve just destroyed our peaceful Christmas night by breaking rules and changing laws, and the tighter a package we hand the Nesh in the morning, the better. Eh what? I shall also get on to the Crucio,” he added.

Terry groaned. All of that hadn’t occurred to him, you could tell. But it was a sort of happy groan.

“Ok, Pharaoh, get on that. Meanwhile, Steffi, let me show you a guest room. And I’m pretty sure that if you don’t mind kicking around in guys’ sweatpants, we can give you jammies and whatnot. Pharaoh, is the yard safe for the pup?” he called into the study.

“Perfectly,” came the answer.

“Sweet! Asylum all round.”

The Council trickled in over the next hour or so, some less than thrilled at losing their holiday, some tickled to death at the new legislation. There was some argument–they were Th’nashi, it was part of their biological processes to help the blood stay down or something–but Terry was firmer and more serene than I’d ever seen him. Yup, proud.

Steffi semi-collapsed from everything, seeing as it was dawn for her body clock anyway, and Hans snuffled in content as I jumped over him to lick the trails of dried salt on her face. I fell asleep tucked under her chin. She was smiling. It seemed the least I could do.