(This surprised me by taking under ten minutes. I think I’ll do another prompt today because I feel like I’ve been let out of school early.)
Another writing prompt, another day—
Bizarre or quotidian: Who knows?
Challenging my creativity
Despite initial doubt,
Every day my fingers surprise me.
Frightful or frivolous,
Good or mediocre; when I
Hear my words as
I read them aloud, it
Just gives me a quiver that
Kills my insecurity, my feelings of
Lameness, if only for a
Nature, it seems, has given me this talent
Of being a wordsmith. My ground-in Christianity
Perennially brings me to the Talents parable.
Queer, in such an agnostic adrift, I know.
Still brings me
To Gibbs’ Rule #5: Don’t waste good.
Unless I can come up with some other
Very good thing to do,
Writing is my thing, whether
Xanthic or fertile, it holds me accountable.
Yesterday and tomorrow, I must cry forth my One, else be a
After ruminating a bit, I decided to put this up here instead of sheeping around with self-pubbing it, which I don’t have energy for. I’ve done little editing, but am pretty pleased with it. My self-inflicted prompt: Use a different set of characters. The Lions have a couple of minor walk-ons, as this is still my universe, but this is an entirely different corner. Hope you like it!
I pubbed it! Don’t worry, it’s still affordable at $2.99. Check Amazon and the other e-book sites. Woot!
I made myself start writing something that had nothing to do with the sheeping Th’nashi. Here’s the first chapter of . . . sumthin. . .:
Squirrel was afraid of the baby. Her baby. Oh, Duncan’s baby too, of course—well, not really. His sperm had activated her gene plasm, but that had been it. She had dutifully gone to doctors in the Community, who had supplied her with the necessary ultrasound photos and very particular prenatal vitamins, but in truth she was about to give birth to a crudely humanoid lump of green Play-doh.
“But at least it’s healthy Play-Doh,” she said to the air freshener hanging from her rear-view mirror. Plum Blossom, it was. Little Camber Stichson had adored fruity, floral scents, so Squirrel did too, even though she had matured (wearing Camber’s print) past the age when she should have changed over to liking muskier odors.
But that was how it went. Sometimes prints were like snapshots. Despite the age on her driver’s license (26), Squirrel still wanted to play hopscotch, yearned for every new doll on TV, and regularly made herself sick from too much candy and ice cream. Too much sugar was very bad for Printers—Squirrel was considered to have a Problem, and was at risk of becoming Mushy, parts dissolving into a disgusting mass of green Play-doh streaked with blood.
She had been careful about what she ate during her marriage, and more so during the pregnancy. Squirrel was pretending she was going to have an ordinary human baby, because the green Play-doh gave her nightmares, as she carried within her the undeniable proof that the alien existed. She would cling to Duncan in the sweaty sheets, always grateful that Camber had been a sneeze past an early puberty when she’d been printed, so Squirrel was able to get horny and have a satisfying relationship with Duncan. For days and weeks on end, Squirrel was the Camber-print: human in almost every detail.
Now, she started the car, hoping she’d make it through the freeway traffic before the frozen veggies in her grocery bags thawed and refroze into an unforgiving lump. She had shopped hastily and would have to make a sketchy dinner for Duncan, because she had spent the afternoon touring Bryson Cryogenics, which was run by the Community as a source for emergency prints. Like babies.
Squirrel blinked and froze. A strange man had gotten into the front seat with her; an equally strange woman had barreled into the back seat, pushing the grocery bags over to make room with a savage swear.
“What . . . the?” Squirrel managed to croak before the muzzle of a gun was jammed into her ribs.
“Drive, lady, if you and the baby wanna live,” the man snarled.
“Oh shit, Jude, she’s pregnant?” the woman in the back wailed.
“Shut up, Suzanne!” he barked. Squirrel flinched as a reflex. That happened to be the name on her driver’s license. Nobody called her that except her boss and her father-in-law. The muzzle of the gun slid down an inch, making her wince with pain. It was now digging into the area of her liver, which the baby was fond of pounding from the other side, exercising its protolimbs with a vigor Squirrel found dismaying. It added to the nightmares.
But right now it had penetrated that strangers and gun meant carjacking, and Squirrel, going on 13, was terrified.
“Drive!” he urged her, and Squirrel did, not knowing how this adventure would end.
For about twenty minutes, Jude directed and Squirrel obeyed, while from the back seat Suzanne would interject an occasional comment: “C’mon, Jude, she’s pregnant.” “I told you this was fucking stupid.” And at last, “Shit! Is she almost out of gas, or what?”
Jude half-turned to backhand her then, as being the bearer of bad tidings, and Squirrel thought of going for the gun, but she was even more unsure of how that adventure would end. But Suzanne was right; in fact Squirrel was cursing herself for this just on general principles. She had no idea what Jude would do—and she plain hated running out of gas. She did it a lot—it was one of the reasons her nickname still stuck.
Jude made her ask the GPS where the nearest station was, and Squirrel’s heart leapt. She knew it—it was off the beaten trail, run by a nice old widower who was a shade-tree mechanic with a single rusty pump. He had been a Marine in ‘Nam, and the staties had once had a hard time explaining to him why he couldn’t keep a junkie’s head as a trophy, after the kid had played a 9mm, and discovered that old Mr. Bubba had double barrels in the hole.
Squirrel pulled into the gravel driveway under the huge live oak without a word, her heart pounding.
“Go on, get out and pump the gas,” Jude said, gesturing at the placard reading “Self-Serve.” Squirrel got out of the car, her knees a little wobbly, but as she turned to the ancient pump, a ribbon of agony tore through her, and she cried out, clutching at the car for support. It was time. The one thing Printer and human births had in common was that they couldn’t be argued with.
Suzanne yelled through the window, “Your water break? Jude, I think her water just broke. We gotta get outta here!”
“Not without gas,” he gritted, and leapt out of the car, gun waving in all directions like a malicious iron wasp.
Squirrel sank down to the ground, tugging her gauzy maternity top out of the way so she could burrow a thumb inside her body. It hurt, but not like the spasms now racking her entire circulatory system. She felt resistance; then the bubble of amniotic fluid cascaded over her lap in verisimilitude of a human’s water breaking. She kept her hand clutched to her belly, while the other tried and failed to pin her long honey-blonde hair behind her ears so it wouldn’t blend with the sweat pouring into her eyes.
Suzanne also had gotten out of the car, ignoring Jude’s barking. As he pumped the gas, swearing at the rusty contraption while still holding the gun on Squirrel as best he could, Suzanne knelt beside her and took her hand. This unexpected kindness in the middle of the surreality of the last hour undid Squirrel, and she burst into tears.
Jude’s head exploded, raining blood and brains over the two women. Mr. Bubba, thought Squirrel in vindication as Suzanne screamed and flattened herself on the ground. Squirrel felt that everything was happening in slow motion as she tugged at the hole she had made, keening like an animal hit by a car. She pulled forth the squirming green mass and, pushing up Suzanne’s jean leg, applied it to her bare unbloodied skin.
The carjacker was in too much terror to notice, and Mr. Bubba had lost a leg in the jungle, so by the time he and his M-16 peeked around the hood of the car, the print took hold, and pink replaced green with a rapidity that made even Squirrel blink with surprise.
Mr. Bubba limped over, and, forcing Jude’s body out of the way with his cane, peered down at them. Squirrel had turned away, and was sheltering the baby as best she could as it busily thrust forth fingers and toes. She heard Suzanne babble for her life; heard Mr. Bubba tell her to stay just as she was.
“Squirrel?” The old man put a gentle hand on her head. She looked up, and only then realized she was still sobbing. Thank God I’m wearing Aunt Dorothy’s hideous maternity skirt today, she thought somewhere in the back. I never could have pulled this off in jeans.
Then they all looked up, as a huge greyish wedge hurtled over their heads, followed by another, and then another. There was a massive rush of air, but no sound.
I’m dreaming, sighed Squirrel. The Community had records. The ships which had dropped them off in 1642 looked much like this. Dreaming. She relaxed into Mr. Bubba’s arms in a drowsy relief. Dreaming. None of it real.
The silence in the car was punctuated by Allie’s sniffles and Desiree’s snores. You’d have thought one would have cancelled out the other, peaceful baby making happy mommy and all, and after about five miles, I tried logic.
“It’s not like they hurt her,” I said. I knew I sounded defensive. “And we did spring her on them at the last minute. And they had all the couch pillows underneath–”
“Shut up, Henry!” Allie yowled. Desi woke up and began to cry. I couldn’t blame Desiree. She’d been a good sport. But when Alison walked down the stairs and saw our five-month-old duct-taped to a wall of my best friend’s man-cave, something changed in our marriage, and not for the better. Before tonight, I’d always thought that “good sport” described my wife as well. Guess not.
Maybe it was genetic. We’d spent the night bailing my pouty and ungrateful mother-in-law out of jail after a drunken spree with her four best buddies. They had all won motorcycles on a trip to a game show in New York. Instead of selling them to cover the taxes, they had named themselves the Hogettes, and proceeded to act like it.
So when we got the call, we thought we were making the right decision when we dropped Desi off with “Uncle” Jaffe and his poker game instead of hauling her to Night Court with a gaggle of septuagenarian biker chicks.
Jaffe ran the town’s auto body shop and tutored the high school kids in physics in his spare time. He had a theory that duct tape could do anything, and I was willing to admit it did just fine as a baby wall-chair. He’d even noosed Mr. Daddles next to her without so much as damaging his plush. It made sense, as there was no space in Jaffeland that could even remotely be called “child-safe.”
But when I pulled up to the house, Allie snatched Desi out of her car seat as if she’d rescued her from ravening wolves pursuing the chaise. “You can sleep on the couch tonight, Mr. Thinks It’s Funny! Maybe you can make yourself a blanket out of duct tape.” We have a door at the top of the steps to the bedrooms and all, a leftover from when her mom used to live in the house, and it slammed and clicked. Lucky there was a powder room downstairs, I guess.
So I went on the Internet and then back to Jaffe’s, seeing as the hardware stores were closed, and he fixed me up. Can’t say it didn’t take me a while, but I made me my blanket out of duct tape. All different colors, too. Man, it pissed Allie off that next day.
What’s a fella to do?
Cat was a small dark man of spare flesh; his long black hair fell to his waist.
“Keys Made Here,” said the sign on the door. Cat could beat a lock or a safe in a trice; rust and age meant not a bit. But those who knew Cat best knew the keys were the thing. For the odd man off the street, the small brass toys would be clean and smooth, from the first time to the last. But for those with the right word and right wink, Cat’s keys could fit in the lock of Time.
It took more than just the key, of course. A square in chalk, a stalk of grass, a stuffed mouse made from felt–and the Eight Great Words. Cat would stand back in the dark, a grim smile on his face, as the poor fools took their first steps into a When that was not Now.
“Y’all come back now, hear?” Cat would drawl. But he knew that they would not, for his keys were one-way, just that.
He kept the mice for his cat (who was named Man), and rubbed out the chalk. He left the grass for the wind, and went on his way home to Man and his wife.
January snow spun into February slush, but on the 13th a freak storm powdered all the grayish brown white again. I heard Lynn pass the house on her way to church that morning–Dante was preaching–and was all fluffed up against the windowseat back when they returned a couple hours later. The snow was good for snowballs and the like, and they were playing in it like children. Aww. I still had my doubts about the Lynn and Dante thing. He always struck me as having secrets–but then, she hadn’t let out a peep about her fling with Pascal until she had her nose rubbed in it, so what did I know? Despite Terry’s new proclamation about no more Grail slavery in Nova Terra, she had chosen to stay with the Order anyway, and was happy enough at it. But it hadn’t been very long, she was in love, and honeymoons all end.
Geeze. I caught myself thinking these things and gave myself a good shake. What was my deal? I wasn’t hungry, I had caught my first mouse only the night before–a triumph of patient stalking ending in a frenzy of batting-about that had horrified the squeamish Terry into taking it away and putting it outside, where the red-tail hawk that lived in the neighborhood made quicker work of it three minutes later. Okay, that was annoying, but I was over it.
There had been a six-car pile-up on Memorial Drive that morning, the result of an actual car chase on the icy streets. So Sasha had gone off to supervise, leaving Terry in bed. He was only getting up now, or at least stirring. I ran upstairs and bounced onto the bed, getting him square in the bladder. This made him cry out and call me a couple of things I probably deserved, and he got up. He still hadn’t forgiven me when he came out of the bathroom, and told me I should beat it if I knew what was good for me. I retreated to the doorway, but he went so far as to look for something to chuck at me. Even something as fluffy as a pillow would be annoying, so off I went, feeling abused. “What’s with him this morning, I ask you?” I asked no-one, as I continued back downstairs. He didn’t have any business being in bed until noon, anyway.
Devon was training a new kid, so they weren’t watching TV or playing games, and I already knew most of the gossip he was passing along, so after nosing around in the guard room for a few minutes and getting petted a little, which helped, but not much, I went back to the kitchen. Nibbled some kibble; camped for a few minutes in front of the sink listening for any telltale sounds that the caulking had been defeated. Nope. On down to the basement–where I stopped dead on the third stair, hunkering down my outer soul to nearly nothing, and being glad my dark blue fur blended me into shadows.
Steffi and Pharaoh were making out in the hot tub.
I knew they were friendly, but I hadn’t seen this coming! How serious was this? Where was Hans? She never went anywhere without him. But then I figured it out. She had gone to visit Pharaoh at his home in Jamaica Plain, and Hans was no doubt visiting with Tuck, Hiroshi’s springer spaniel, whom I’d never met. And Pharaoh had gated them over here to enjoy the sprawl of the 12-human hot tub. I realized my tail was twitching and I made it stop. Or tried. It had a mind of its own, which meant I was aggravated. But why?
Steffi was giggling and pretending to try to make him stop, but her outer soul was wildly happy. His was a mix of smug satisfaction and yes, a slice of pure animal hope, vow of chastity be damned. Lion Quartermain would be losing an inch of hair in chapter that week if he had anything to say about it. It should have been cute. I was very fond of both these people. What was wrong with me?
Things didn’t seem to be progressing to anything I could call educational, so I trudged back upstairs, running into Devon in the kitchen, who was making lunch for himself and the new kid. He laughed.
“Get a surprise down there? I can’t tell through the ping baffles he threw up. All I know is I’m supposed to sing out when either Terry or Sasha or Dante show up. She’s a nice lady. I hope it works out.” He ruffled my fur and offered me a sliver of hot dog, which I gobbled. I wondered what would happen if he bit her. He had the native Toxin K, being Knightsblood, but her Toxin F would coax his body into rapid decomposition. This stung my soul. Oh no! Would he be careful! Did this canoodle require intervention? My happy morsel of hot dog turned to greasy rock in my stomach.
I went back to doze in front of the window, my new worry threading through my dreams. I kept telling myself that Pharaoh was a big boy, a smart boy, and that all the Lions carried antivenin, just in case–but he had inched his way into my heart, until I loved him as much as I did Sasha and Terry. I was ecstatic when Sasha’s elderly Volvo pulled into the driveway. Now there’d be a stop to this!
With Sasha was his Lion partner and office flunky, Taillefer Araimfres; and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Not at seeing the friendly ginger doctor for his own sake, but because I now recalled Pharaoh telling me that the two of them had grown up together. Taillefer was the crossbreed type Knightsblood-Firenzi, and during their so’fir’aa, when Taillefer’s deadly venom was just starting to develop, Pharaoh’s father had him chew Pharaoh and his brothers raw, so they would get a natural resistance to it. This had worked so well that Pharaoh secreted tiny amounts of it himself. Steffi held no harm for him–except maybe in the romantic department, but even I knew that they were both on their own there.
I came out to greet my small blond daddy and his tall muscular friend. Sasha was cheerful, which meant he had gone through the morning’s gore without finding any dead children for a change.
“Hey Eureka, Lazybones up yet?”
“I tried,” I told him. “He’s sulking upstairs.” Sasha sighed as if he had understood me–or at least my plaintive tone–and told Taillefer to make himself at home.
“You may as well head on down to the tub. I’ll catch you there in a few.”
Uh-oh. Devon was upstairs talking to Terry, and the new kid was tinkering with some addition to the game system they had just bought. I ran ahead of the doctor and down the stairs.
Things still seemed to be in a holding pattern in terms of where hands, etc. were, but I took no chances.
“Sasha!” I yowled. Pharaoh gratified me by jumping two feet. The former Kaiserin laughed in delight.
“Oh my, Kätzchen, it sounded just like you said your papa’s name.” To Pharaoh: “I love it when animals do that. We should put Eureka on YouTube.”
Pharaoh choked with laughter. “You put Eureka on YouTube. I value my nubbly bits too much to brave such a thing. Sasha has both a gun and access to scalpels.” He sent forth his outer soul in a spell that arrowed through the house. Steffi and I were both impressed when the data came back in the form of a little wireframe of the house, with glowing dots indicating people. As we all watched, one of the dots came down the basement stairs in the form of Taillefer Araimfres.
Pharaoh turned the jets of the tub on in ostensible politeness to his friend, but I suspect it might have been more because he had what Terry referred to as a “happy lap.”
Taillefer wasn’t stupid, and he paused, unwilling to interrupt a tete-a-tete, but the other two humans had cuddled themselves into a giddy happiness and urged him to come on in. Pharaoh gave Steffi a teasing whack on the arm as she watched Taillefer get undressed. I was pleased that she was ogling the poor guy, him being a mass of freckle and fur. But underneath it all, he had fighting master muscles, which showed her good taste. Taillefer himself, unused to being admired, completed the picture by blushing deep rose all over his body, but all the humans pretended he wasn’t. Our dai’yadi worked a little overtime to be nice to Taillefer, because he did work for Sasha, after all.
After a while, Sasha came on downstairs, his good mood blunted–by Terry, I presumed. Sheesh. All it had been was one playful pounce. I went upstairs to see if I could wheedle my way back into his affections and get him out of the grouchies.
Terry was sitting at his desk in a bathrobe and sweats, which signified that he was prepared to go on down to the tub and be social, but email had caught him first. With caution, I tiptoed over to him and rubbed my ears on his calves in apology, mrring my most appealing I’m-sorry. (What I actually said was, “I don’t believe a word of it. Pull the other one,” because it sounds heart-rending in Cat to the untutored human ear.)
He grinned. “It’s ok, sweetheart. Daddy’s over it. I still love you.” He patted his lap and I watched him check e-mail, amusing myself by practicing my reading. Pharaoh had once evaluated it as being on about a third-grade level, so I didn’t get very far. But I did see the words “Vai’ada Statute,” this being the kill-the-accidental-humani-who-tumbles-to-us bit, and I could appreciate his bleak mood. Was this what I was picking up?
But no; he went downstairs and made merry enough, leaving me still depressed. Maybe I need Prozac, I wondered, and turned on the remote to a self-help show. The theme was Valentine’s Day–a little early, but what the hell–and that’s when I figured it out.
It was Valentine’s Day, and we had now two couples around doing the dating thing–hell, three, if Joel’s girlfriend counted. Sean and Eamon had been at the house last night, going over their plans: They were meeting for afternoon high tea at the Plaza Hotel tomorrow afternoon, and they had already arranged to have their daughter Fiona, who was 12, sleep over with Rita Monday night, so as to get their romance on.
But my daddies weren’t making any plans; were edgy around the whole subject. They didn’t do romance, and it was depressing me. And as for me–well, if Steffi was going to frolic in our tub, the least she could do would be to bring Hans, so I’d have somebody to talk to. I sighed. It wasn’t just the daddies. It wasn’t just the romance. I was yet another single person, and we were coming up on the day of the year when it is least cool to be alone.
Later on that night, I watched Terry take his usual hit of Sashan O+, trying to discern–what? Tenderness? Appreciation? Or did he just take it for granted? I curled up in my spot, but couldn’t purr for Sasha, which disappointed him I think, but I was just ready to sleep as much of the next day through as I could.
And I tried, but of course next morning they both got up nice and early and did their morning routine in their usual choreography of stay-out-of-his-way. It was a teaching day for Terry, so it was down to me, Matt, and the mice. Matt had to study for an Economics exam, and the mice in the basement had some hidden tunnel system to the outdoors that made me insane. I decided to practice pronouncing “Prozac” to let Pharaoh know that maybe a trip to Hiroshi was in order.
Both daddies were late, which made the everlasting day longer and grayer. But when Devon and Terry came home, they were carrying odd bags.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Terry sighed.
“Dude, it’s Valentine’s Day. I mean sir.” Devon opened the first of the bags, which smelled like some human perfume that would make me sneeze. “Special stuff for the tub, check.” He rattled the other bags, which I realized contained flowers. “Bouquet of roses, check. And . . .” He reached into another florist’s bundle, and scattered a handful of petals all over the entryway. “Path of rose petals, check. Now you go upstairs and put on the satin sheets.”
“I really can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Terry groaned. But he drew his thumb down the center of his chest, which was the Lion gesture that meant “Obedience,” and up he went.
I helped Devon get an even distribution of the rose petals, which were reasonably tasty. Then he told the new kid that they were ordering pizza and not poking their noses out for the rest of the night.
“It’s Valentine’s Day. Give ‘em some privacy.”
Terry came down into the kitchen and rattled around, making good smells. I could feel his outer soul argue with itself: Would the often-grumpy Sasha go along with this piece of schlocky almost-very-married romance? We hoped so.
But six and then seven o’clock came, and no Sasha. His phone was refusing calls, which meant he was in the middle of something he considered more important than people. Terry put the dinner (orange chicken! At least I got some!) away and went down to mope in the tub, forgetting the new bubble bath on the dining room table.
At ten o’clock, he decided to just go to bed early. “At least I like satin sheets,” he said to me. “I shouldn’t be bummed. He’s a doctor, and a Lion. But . . . This was going to be It, Eureka. I was gonna say the scary words. Did you know we’ve never done that?” My eyes widened. Sure, I’d never actually heard them say it, but never? My heart hardened against Sasha. Unromantic fink.
Finally, at eleven o’clock, we heard the downstairs door and pinged Sasha’s shock as he froze, contemplating the rose petals inviting him upstairs. Then up he came, Terry trying to find something to do with his face that was better than “shit-eating grin” but failing.
Sasha came into the doorway and their eyes met. Terry lost the grin and looked and pinged a rare vulnerability. My heart was pounding.
Sasha didn’t take off his outer coat. Instead, he reached into the long, classy alpaca and took something out of his pocket.
“This little guy was born in the alley behind the morgue. Off-season. Hiroshi’s had him for a week, doing the worming thing and whatnot. Thought you might like him. Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said, almost as an afterthought.
He handed Terry a squirming gray tabby kitten, no more than five or six weeks old. He’d still be getting his kibble soaked in milk.
Terry’s face glowed. After a moment, “I think I’ll name this tiny lion Mercy. It’s traditional.” Then, “I love you, Sasha.” All of creation went silent. I was on my way over the blankets to meet the kitten, but I froze.
Sasha’s face went through a number of expressions. If he says he’s just the Grail Consort, I’ll piss on his shorts, I thought.
He walked over to Terry, looking down on him, face and ping still unreadable. Then he reached out and put his hand on the nape of Terry’s neck, and pulled his face up into the fiercest kiss I’d ever seen.
“I love you too, Terr’.” The kiss lengthened, until Mercy yipped, “Gotta pee!”
Oh Bast. I shot in there and scruffed him, dragging him down the stairs, wending my way among the rose petals. All I needed was to slip on the damn things and go ass over teakettle down the steps. Break the little bugger’s neck probably.
His bladder had given him just enough notice for him to comply with me muttering, “Hold it, kid!” as best I could until we made the litter pan in the study. I could hear the daddies coming down behind me–Where the frip was I taking the kitten?–I could ping their concern. They could thank me later.
And they did. We all stood around and watched Mercy scratch — “Don’t kick the litter outside of the box,” I warned–and Terry wondered aloud, “How did she know?”
“Eureka’s a genius. Natural mother. Had no worries at all,” Sasha bragged. He was lying–his outer soul had reached out to me with a plea of panic as soon as he’d entered the bedroom.
Mother. Feh. This was going to be a pain in the ass. I was only eleven months old myself–I knew what kittens were! But I was already making a list in my head of all the things Fred had done to me that I wouldn’t–and, yeah, a few that I would. Old bastard hadn’t been all bad, not by a long chalk.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Terry said softly, arms around Sasha.
“Back at ya, hombre.” They kissed. I sighed. Mercy came up to me and headbutted me. With persistence. I realized that the poor little bastard was looking for a nipple. Oh, Bast.
“Come on, short stuff. Let’s show you around.” I headbutted Sasha, passing on Mercy’s persistence, until he paid attention. I led the way to the kitchen. En route, Mercy tried for my tail. Yep, literal pain in the ass.
But as Terry reheated Sasha’s dinner and Mercy gobbled down his moist kitten chow with his tail spiraling like a helicopter, I realized I wasn’t depressed anymore. I didn’t have time! I also started making a list of the things Devon taught the younger cubs. Busy, busy, busy.
Sasha scooped me up for one of his rare hugs. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he whispered, and for a second I felt a stab of guilt, as I realized Mercy hadn’t entirely been meant for Terry. But only for a second. We were Th’nashi, and this was our now enlarged dai’yadi. We shared.
Besides, I was now senior cat! Who’da thunk it?
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.
We didn’t get to see much of Lynn for the next while. She was busy being sucked into the Order. Dante’s child psychologist friend had a side specialty in a’thanila children, and as she already had a rapport with Rita, it was decided that Dr. Morris would break the news to the spud–in the comfort of our house, with pretty near the entire dai’yadi on call for reassurance if needed.
Plans went pretty well, until one night Devon said, in a mimicry of Rita’s little girl voice, “OK, guys, I got it. Mommy and everybody are vampires. And I’m a vampire too. But what about Daddy? He’s not a vampire. My magic vampire g’nah would have known.” In a more normal tone, he went on, “It’s only what every kid wants to know as soon as they figure out their particular sperm and egg aren’t the ones claiming credit. Like it or not, guys. Sirs,” he added. Devon was a’thanila himself, which gave his opinion extra weight. (Terry had only brushed off mild embarrassment at having forgotten Sean’s irregular origin. He was really bummed when he realized he didn’t know his favorite man-at-arms as well as he thought he had.)
“Kid’s got a point.” Meeze rested his elbows on the table. “Pascal Chatte’d’garcon has to come into this picture. Terry, you know him, don’t you?”
“Not well,” Terry admitted. “His brother married my cousin as soon as it was legal up here–two weeks after Sean and Eamon, to be exact. I saw Pascal at the wedding, and his main topic of conversation was trying to get me to pull some strings for his band.”
“Band?” queried Pharaoh. He was in a testy mood because I’d slipped in playing with his yarn earlier and bitten it clear through. He hated joins and knots when it was something poofy like boucle or baby yarn. Worse, the cubs had gotten me wound up into dangercat mode and in the thick of things I had also whacked him one with a not-quite-velveted paw. A sheepish Devon had had to spit out a stream of their fy’zhan venom, the one they injected when leaving a bite, which caused the rapid healing. (Their own venom didn’t work on themselves.) As he had rubbed it in, he had spoken to me in quite a sharp tone, and I had chosen to lurk behind Meeze’s chair tonight, where there was the braid as entertainment.
“Pascal sings. Beautiful bass. His band does this really eclectic mix of things that incorporates bluegrass with conservatory.” There was an odd tone to both Terry’s voice and outer soul.
Meeze mrr’ed almost as if he were a cat. “What aren’t you telling us? This isn’t like you. Give.”
“Yeah,” Sasha said. “People try to milk you for contacts all the time. If you handled the Neshies with the same skill, the Crucio would be handing you a Good Conduct medal.”
Terry ignored this, while I felt the others fang their lips to keep from snickering. “Pascal is Adrian’s little brother. As in, Ado is our age: pushing forty-something. But Pascal is the son of Adrian’s stepmother: Twenty-something.”
There were whistles and a guffaw or two, but Meeze said, “No, Rita is thirteen. He can’t be.”
“Well, a very low thirty-something, then. Keep the cubs locked up around the woman, is all I can say.” He sounded fierce. The dai’yadi by now all knew the story of Terry getting nabbed by the cops on the verge of proposing to his Aria, so people drew their own conclusions about the scandalized anger in his voice and forbore to comment on it.
Meeze said to Sasha, “I’m having trouble with this picture of Lynn-the-cougar. Are we sure Pascal’s the father?”
Sasha nodded. “Sure enough for Maury Povich.”
Terry groaned as Devon crowed, “Pascal, you are the father!” Pharaoh started to squeak and bounce and point his finger, getting up from his seat to put his hand on his hips, bending forward with his pointing hand in Meeze’s face as he did a little dance of vindicated joy, complete with yelps and tosses of his head. I came around the table to watch, leaping up to the back of the couch for a better seat. He really was perfect, but then it was a favorite knitting show of his.
When he was through and had enjoyed the hilarity and applause he had deserved, he sat down and put up his hands for silence. When the other men (notably excepting Dante, who had sat in a humorless thundercloud the while) indicated he might continue, he said, “But seriously a bit. Now imagine the tears of the maiden who is proved to have been mistaken. I think that’s closer to what our Lynn will give us, don’t you? How can we do that to her, calling ourselves Lions and gentlemen?”
Devon said, “Oh, I don’t know. When they get up and run around the studio and then off the set, that’s pretty funny.”
Dante snarled, “That is because we have objectified other humans to a lowest common denominator in order to make ourselves feel better about our own miserable, laughable, little lives.” Really, this man was no fun at all sometimes. Priests, bah. And psychologists, worse.
Meeze said, sounding thoughtful, “But part of why we enjoy laughing at this rather simple plot is because that’s what they get. These humans irresponsibly made a baby, and now they have to face the consequences, and if you think about it, a few minutes of national humiliation ain’t nothin’ compared to having to help sell band candy. Like it or not, Lynn’s going to have to face up to this, and, well, not to be a hardass, but it’s not like we haven’t seen her cry before.” This got him a few dirty y’rais, but he was speaking the truth.
Dante said, “At some point this week, Lynn will be getting enough biological information for her to figure out that Rita can’t be Lafe’s child, if indeed she’s ever thought she was–women usually know. Not always, as that dreadful show proves, but still. She’ll have access to Rita’s Chattie record if she thinks to ask for it.”
Devon’s outer soul went firm with purpose. “Oughtn’t we to be thinking of Rita here? Surely it’s more important that she know her father than whether or not her mom’s embarrassed. And what’s so embarrassing? That he was a young guy? With all due respect, sir and elder brothers, maybe you wish you had it going on that way. Sure, she’s on the heavy side, but she’s a really pretty lady, and super nice.” He looked around the table and got a weird, lopsided grin. “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve never had feelings for somebody older?” To both his and my delight, several people shifted in their seats–Dante Fabrizio positively went red. Devon grinned and leaned back. “‘Nuff said.”
“Don’t get any ideas, cubling,” laughed Meeze.
“Why not?” Devon said. “She’s in the Order. It wouldn’t be a breach of chastity.”
“Because it would really upset me, that’s why,” snapped Terry. Devon was feeling pert enough to answer back, but every older Lion in the room y’raied him.
“Moving right along,” said Sasha, looking as amused as I had ever seen him, “seeing as Etienne and Adrian are due for a visit this coming Tuesday so Tennie can make his report on the Nesh’s latest round of hijinks, I suggest that maybe Pascal get invited too, so we can play this out and get it over with. Because I am willing to guarantee that Lynn will be happy to bury it in paperwork for as long as possible to avoid a confrontation–for somebody who’s good at them, she avoids them; that’s the post-traumatic stress, and I hope we all agree that it’s bad to pile more on that load. Better far to have it out in the open. And if she runs off the set, well, I’ve run after her before.” He was referring to winkeling her out of the laundry room that time she was overcome by all the naked men, and people smiled.
I was not quite as pleased. Etienne Dangerstreet was the Archimago’s Voice to the Nesh’vai, meaning he was Terry’s proxy on that body–and often spy. Etienne was good enough for a human, I supposed, but he was the only regular visitor who was allergic to me, and so I spent those council meetings shut up in the basement. It had taken Pharaoh a while to catch on that I’d gotten to like hearing what went on at the Tuesday meeting, as it was my main shot at keeping some kind of track of the politics–which, may Bast forgive me, had started to interest me. But when he figured it out, he would zap me an earbug spell before the meeting started. Better than nothing; at least Terry was scrupulous about getting me my fair dose of lox.
Adrian, Etienne’s husband, was a nice sort, though. He liked cats and had taken to coming down to the basement to visit with me. It was a bit distracting if I was trying to listen to something complicated, but he tended to come with a pocketful of some fancy treats from one of those pet boutique places in New York. Its unfortunate name was “Dogering and Catering,” but they were yummy little bits, and it gave the big fellow great pleasure to spoil me with them. I hoped Pascal was nice too, now that he was joining the family.
When Tuesday rolled around, Adrian came downstairs as usual, armed with my treats and a good book. For the heir to one of Contract’s most prestigious Houses, he hated politics and avoided it whenever possible. A Classics scholar by training, the good book was usually Latin or Greek, and he would curl up and wait the meeting out, sometimes disrobing and taking advantage of our excellent tub. But today his thick black eyebrows were set in a scowl, and the dark-sky eyes were pained.
“Hello, Eureka. Congratulate me; I just found out I’m an uncle.” Ah. But what was so bad about that? I still wasn’t getting the point of all this fuss. Cats don’t care about fatherhood–the tom is almost always a long-forgotten episode of pain and annoyance. It’s the kittens that count. Now, don’t get me wrong–I was alive to the human necessity of having two parents and all, and could sympathize with Rita’s right to know her pedigree–sometimes I wondered about mine: Did my patrician Russian Blue mama get frisky one night and muddy up her owner’s plans for pricey purebred kittens? I would never know, and really didn’t care. But Lynn and Pascal, now! So she was older. Big deal!
But I nuzzled Adrian to show I sympathized with his mood, and curled up by him to listen to the argument upstairs, which was about some jackass in the Nesh’vai trying to get a special Statute passed which would make it illegal to make a humani vai’ada. The penalties made my fur stand on end: For example, a humani blundering onto our secret would be disappeared and their body mined for blood for those unable to Hunt. Barbaric! Even Terry was up in arms about it–”This is the sort of thing I keep my Neshie points for, instead of nitshit stuff like the Pit,” he said. Sounded promising. I hoped.
After the meeting, my earbug spell expired, and Adrian went back upstairs for what was going to pass for a friendly gathering, but was really a social trap for two unwitting parents–at least I hoped it was unwitting on both ends. I didn’t want to miss this real-life drama, but unless they opted to have the scene in the tub . . .
Wait a minute. I remembered hearing a lot of mouse sound in the dining room; it had seemed to be coming from a particular corner. I had sniffed it out already–there was a gap in the floor of some six inches square, hidden by the ancient mahogany sideboard. And right underneath in the basement was a rack Sasha used to store old equipment on. (He had used to boil down bits of ex-Th’nashi at home for various forensic Lion business, but Terry had put a revolted stop to it long before they’d gotten me.)
It was the work of a minute to hop up there–there was a lot of mouse poop–and hardly any trouble to ooze my way through the hole. What a lot of dust bunnies were in the back here! Even the professional housekeepers had been missing it. I held my breath and body-surfed through it, until I was out and in the dining room proper. I wanted a bath now, but I needed concealment. Everybody was in the kitchen–everybody, meaning Sasha and Terry and Dante and Adrian and Etienne–the cubs were in their room. I sidled from shadow to shadow along the sideboards until I reached the area behind the huge flatscreen in the living room. I moved the remote with careful nudges so it wouldn’t betray me, and voila! I was just in time, as people started to come in to the dining room at the ring of the doorbell.
It was Pascal Chatte’d’garcon, and his ping pronounced him as an innocent lamb led to the slaughter. I peeked out to get a look at him, and after a moment, I could sort of see why Terry had been so scandalized.
Not only was he indeed a good bit younger than Lynn, he was what humans deemed very handsome. His eyes were the same dark-sky color as Adrian’s, and he topped his 6’2” with the same dark curls, but they dangled down the nape of his neck, stopping right at the maximum length Contract sumptuary laws allowed a man not a Lion. He had a sort of muscular grace that reminded me of Hans–he wasn’t trained to be a fighter, but it wouldn’t take much work to get him into shape for it. And even a cat could see that he was Rita’s father, much as we had all thought she looked like Lynn.
He approached Terry with a disarming grin. “Hey Terry, how’ve you been? Any luck finding somebody willing to listen to my demo?” He had his brother’s Texan drawl, but it was softer, deeper, with its corners rounded off in voice school.
Terry found this as wearisome as most professionals did, but this time he was ready to do some appeasing. “Have you seen the new Rude Mechanicals video? The one for their cover of ‘Amie’? Because the couple who did it find your concept intriguing. I know you’ve got your guy with the camera, but–” He stopped and answered Pascal’s incredulous grin with his own. “Want their info?”
“Oh man, you know I do!”
“Step into my office.” They did so, Pascal beginning to bubble up over the edges.
“Oh great,” said the morose Adrian. “Like any chick he knocked up fourteen years ago can compete with that. What were you thinking?”
Dante smiled. He had been impressed with this part of the plan. “That people with good self-esteem are more generous and compassionate.”
“Ha! Like you know Pascal and his swelled head! He’ll treat her like she was lucky to see the gold on it shine.” Adrian had made himself a huge roast beef sandwich. “I saved a scrap or two for Eureka,” he said as he tucked in. “I might just go downstairs and stay with her for this whole show.”
“Now Ado,” Etienne said, his rock-hard gymnast’s hands kneading his shoulders, “just eat your sandwich and hush.” Etienne was an inch shorter than Sasha, all springy ginger curls and purposeful motion. He had cleaned up at the ’72 Olympics in parallel bar and went back to grab another medal eight years later, when a lot of young gymnasts were already starting to age out. If Terry gave him his head with the Nesh’vai, things would be different in Nova Terra. Adrian ate his sandwich and hushed.
“Ia tser– oh, wait, no, never mind. Lynn’s here,” called Devon. I could feel his flush. I supposed it would be only fair to give the kid a week or so to get used to her change of status.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him as she passed.
“Uh, no big. I’ll explain it to you someday,” he laughed.
“Thanks for arranging the big day out for the rugrat,” Lynn told him. “Matt and Joel are brave men.” They were going out to some big anime movie and then for ice cream–if she were good. The big plan was to have her be her sparkliest when she swung by Uncle Terry’s house and bumped into the tom who had sired her. Devon bowed and said nothing, ushering her into the living room with a grand gesture.
I kneaded my paws in irritation as her outer soul soared when it caught wind of Dante’s: His was more polished, less open enthusiasm. I hoped it was just his being English or something, but I was pretty sure she cared more than he did. But he did, at least some; I had to admit that. I sighed. Maybe he was just a little tense, under the circumstances.
“Cara, do you know Tennie and Ado?” Everybody knew she didn’t. “Etienne Dangerstreet, Terry’s cousin, and his official representative to the Nesh’vai. Adrian Chatte’d’garcon, his husband.” Handshaking all around.
Everybody was standing or sitting right in front of the TV, so I didn’t dare peek, but I could tell from Lynn’s confusion that a) she knew something was up and b) this Adrian guy reminded her very strongly of Somebody Else.
Then the punchline hit, as Somebody Else strolled out of Terry’s office, still talking shop with great animation.
Adrian said, with the dash and charm of a true cavalier, “Pascal, mon frere, may I present you to this charming N’vai’tt lady?” From Pascal’s twitch, I gathered that Adrian had laid hands on his person as if seizing a cobra.
“Milady, this is my brother, Pascal Chatte’d’garcon. Pascal, this is Arianlyn Lannon, N’vai’tt Tarragon.”
There was a pause while Pascal was confused and Lynn very slowly became embarrassed. Even scared. Bastards. They didn’t know their tomcats. He had no idea who she was–it had been over a decade–and meanwhile I was betting, knowing both Lynn and over a hundred high school reunion commercials, that she was counting every pound she’d gained since she saw this macho tidbit last. But she said “How do you do?” and sank down in a polite little heap on the edge of the sofa. Her outer soul reminded me of the way it had pulsated back when we had been kidnapped–only this time she’d been trapped by her so-called friends. I wanted to claw somebody.
There was small talk, there were hors ‘d’oeuvres, and then after about twenty minutes Lynn sat bolt upright and said, “Rita!” Her outer soul had gone from coquetting around Dante to outright hiding behind him, but now it zeroed in on Terry and shook. He couldn’t feel it–it was part of her being a fy’foxi that made her touch almost as light as a Crucio’s–but he heard her remark, and I’m sure her face spoke volumes.
“Yes, Rita,” Terry hissed. And everybody else but Pascal cruised to a dead stop. He was in the middle of an anecdote about his band and hadn’t heard a thing, but the ambience of the room sank in within a few words. I edged out just a morsel, figuring that at worst I’d be busted and used for much-needed comic relief. But I wasn’t.
Lynn got up and tried to slap Terry in the face. Of course, his reflexes were too fast for her and he caught her wrist. She pulled away with such violence that she almost fell over, seeing as he let her go as soon as she did. They stood facing each other, panting. Then she spun on her heel, looking for Devon.
“Call the boys,” she snapped. “Have them drop her off at home.”
“Um,” said Devon. Then he shook himself and ran his fingers through his mane of long hair. “No. Not doing it. She needs to know. She may not find out until the thing with Dr. Morris next week, but she’s Th’nashi now. Worse, she’s a ruling daughter of Chattie now. Her business, mom. Not yours.”
Pascal’s eyes widened. Finally, he got it.
“Adrian Michael, did you get this nice lady in the family way? I thought you were gay!”
There was another timeless pause, then Lynn began to laugh, joined by Meeze and Pharaoh, and then Etienne. Sasha rubbed the bridge of his nose, and Terry got up and slammed out of the room. Dante followed him. Last of all, Ado slid down on the floor beside me and whooped until he was red in the face.
Pascal didn’t see why exactly this was funny, but he grinned and went over to Lynn, smothering her in a hug.
“Welcome to the family!”
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.
“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!”
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.
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.