Changeling


Page 22


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And with that, she placed the coffee cups on a tray, added a plate of cookies, and headed into the living room. I followed more slowly. A werepuma had been on the porch. Had been at the scene of Cromwell's murder. I still wanted to think it was somebody spying on the freak who'd strung up my cat friend. But Camille made a valid point.


We'd better keep quiet about the matter until we knew more. Which meant keeping my hands off Zachary for the present. Which meant I didn't have to deal with my emerging attraction, one positive side effect from the whole mess.


Fate was guiding us along a dark path this time. And there wasn't much we could do except follow. If we turned away from this situation, we'd always be wondering if we should have followed through. We might also be setting ourselves up as easy targets in the future. This was going to be an interesting trip, there was no getting around that.


Zachary sat in the backseat next to me, while Morio drove. We were in his Subaru Outback. Camille rode in the passenger seat, silent and staring out the window. Morio looked unruffled, as usual. He always seemed to be calm-except when he was in battle, and then he was hell on wheels. More out of curiosity than interest, I wondered briefly what he was like in bed but shook off the thought. A, he was devoted to Camille. And B, well… I liked the guy, but he wasn't my type.


I glanced out the window. We were almost to the turnoff that would lead us to Tom Lane's old place. When we took Tom with us to Elqaneve and left him in the care of Queen Asteria, Smoky had come up with enough money to keep the house running. It made me sad to think that nobody would miss Tom. Except Titania, of course, and those of us who had the chance to meet him. He was lost, long out of time, long out of sanity.


By paying all the taxes on Tom's land and house, Smoky had provided himself with a buffer of protection and, in the process, prevented anybody else from moving in and discovering his secret.


Morio slowed and then turned left at the turnoff. The road was graveled, and huckleberry and bramble bushes with bare runners reached out to snag the car as we drove by. Towering sentinels, stark Douglas firs, kept silent watch over the land, with a medley of other trees crowding in below. The fireweed and flowers were asleep, of course, waiting for spring's kiss to awaken them like so many slumbering princesses. Winter had taken a firm hold, and a thick mist rose along the ground, rolling over patches where the snow hadn't melted off. We were close to the mountain now, and no doubt this land would see a full blanketing of the cold white flakes before many more days were out.


Round the bend to the left stood an old house in front of the circular driveway. Tom's old trucks were still here, rusted and on blocks, but there was an air of emptiness about the place that belied the scattered belongings that dotted the yard.


"Somebody's living here," Camille said, straightening her shoulders. "Look-there's smoke coming from the chimney."


Morio pulled to a stop and turned off the engine. "Smoky, perhaps? He might welcome spending time by a warm fire when he's in his human form."


"Maybe," Camille said, "but we'd better not assume it's him. We go in prepared."


Zachary swallowed with an audible gulp, his face a blank mask with a wash of apprehension hiding just below. "So, do dragons like pumas?" he asked with a slight edge to his voice.


"Uh, you mean do they like to eat pumas?" I asked.


He nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's what I'm asking."


Camille turned around and with a grin, said, "Dragons prefer cows for dinner, and virgins for other pursuits. You're not a cow, so you're safe on that account. As for the virgin…" She let her voice trail off, and he blushed as she gave him a friendly wink.


"Somehow, I don't think Smoky's your average, everyday dragon." I said, laughing.


Camille headed toward the house. "Yes, well, I doubt if an 'average, everyday' dragon really exists. Okay, let's go see who's inside, folks."


Morio and Camille led the way, readying whatever attacks they had planned just in case we found ourselves facing a less-than-desirable squatter. Since getting between Camille's magic and her intended victim was so not a good idea, I hung back with Zachary.


As we approached the house, I noticed that it looked quite tidy compared to when Tom had lived here. Somebody had taken the time to weed out a flower bed that skirted the front of the house, and the porch steps had been repaired. Smoky? Nah, he wasn't the type to play at home improvement. Or was he?


Camille seemed to be thinking the same thing, because she glanced back at me with a puzzled look, then shrugged. As she and Morio crept up the stairs, the front door slammed open, and a funny-looking man appeared, wearing what looked like old-world leggings and a tunic. His eyes lit up when he saw us, and he spread his arms wide.


"It's the D'Artigo sisters, come to visit Georgio! But where is your sister? Oh, that's right, she's sick, she can't come out in the light," he said, bustling across the porch to welcome us in.


"Well, well, well, if it isn't Georgio Profeta!" I beamed him a warm smile. "How you doing today, Saint George?"


Saint George, as he thought of himself, gave us a knowing look. "I've been on dragon watch, of course. He's a wily one, cunning and stealthy. I know he's been prowling around, and someday, when he least expects it, I'll make my move. Until then, I lead him on, allow him to think I don't know his ulterior motive in moving me out here."


Moving me out here? Good gods, what had Smoky gone and done? Georgio Profeta, self-proclaimed dragon slayer, had been after Smoky for several years now, if we understood matters correctly. Of course, he didn't stand a chance in hell of even giving Smoky a broken pinky, let alone "slaying the beast," but Smoky seemed to have developed a soft spot in his heart for the bewildered man who had long ago lost his connection with reality.


Camille and I gave each other a quick look, and she bustled over to him. "Saint George, how brilliant! I'm sure he doesn't suspect a thing. And did you fix up the house all by yourself?"


He shook his head. "No, when my grandmother died last month, the dragon thought to lure me out here, to offer friendship as a guise in order to keep track of my whereabouts. So I'm taking advantage of his guile. He helped me fix up the house and told me I could live here as long as I need to. Of course, he's just trying to keep me where he can see me. I have slain dragons, I've bedded princesses. I've…" His attention suddenly wandered off, and he disappeared into a silent veil of thought. It was as if someone had turned off the light switch.


Right about then, Smoky appeared at the edge of the clearing. He was in human form, a good thing since there wasn't a lot of room in the front yard for a dragon . He swiftly strode over to meet us. Tall, with long silver hair and frost-colored eyes that mirrored his milk-white skin, he was gorgeous, timeless in a day and age that ran too quickly. He walked with deliberate, arrogant steps. With a warning glance that was easy enough to read-Keep quiet or else-he glanced at us before reaching for Georgio's hand.


"I see Saint George has gone into another fugue," he said, leading the man into the house. Camille and I looked at each other, shrugged, and then followed. Zachary and Morio brought up the rear.


As we entered the house, I could still see Tom's presence in the furniture and decorations, but Georgio had taken over. Prints of Saint George fighting the dragon lined the walls, and draped on a mannequin in a corner of the living room was his plastic-ringed chain-mail armor.


Smoky led Georgio over to a chair and helped him sit down. Then he whistled an odd tune, and after a moment, an older lady came wandering out of the kitchen. She had an apron tied over her floral-print housedress, and her hair was long and gray and braided back in a neat French twist.


"I want you to meet some friends of mine," Smoky said. "Estelle, this is Camille, her sister Delilah, that's Morio and… you must be Zachary?" He bowed briefly to Zach, who looked totally nonplussed.


"They dragons, too?" Estelle asked, giving us the once-over.


"No," Smoky said. "They aren't dragons. If they choose, they're welcome to tell you what they are, but that's up to them. Georgio has slipped into one of his fugues again. Take him to his room and make sure he's cared for?"


She grunted as she took Georgio's arm and gently led him away.


Smoky watched until they were gone. "You're right on time. Very good."


"Hold on," I said. "Not so fast. Who is Estelle, and why is Georgio living out here?"


Smoky gave me a long, cool look. "And you consider this your business?"


My blood ran thin. Picture: little kitty cat swatting monstrous beast and realizing maybe it's not such a good idea.


After a moment, he said, "If you must know, Estelle worked for Georgio's grandmother. She's been his caregiver for years. When I found him in the yard a few weeks back, crying because his grandmother died, I took a trip to the city and had a little talk with Ms. Dugan. She agreed to come here and take care of him. His grandmother left him no inheritance, and he has no other living relatives. Since Georgio can't take care of himself, I offered them the use of this house, a small stipend to keep them in food and clothing, and a wage to Estelle that will allow her to save for her old age-what there is left of it."


He motioned to the door. "Let's move. The veils must be parted during the afternoon." As he took his place beside Camille, he looked over his shoulder. "And before you ask, yes, the woman knows I'm a dragon. And no, it didn't faze her." He curled his arm possessively around Camille's shoulder and led us out into the yard. And that was all to be said on the subject. I wasn't stupid, I knew when to stop pushing.


We followed Smoky through the brush.


"Are you sure you want to do this?" Zachary asked, swinging in beside me as we headed into the wood.


"We've come this far. There's no way in hell that I'm turning back now." After a moment, I hesitantly approached what was bound to be a touchy subject. "Zach, I have to ask this, so please don't take offense. How well do you know your fellow clan members? Is there anybody new in the Pride? Would you trust everyone with your life?"


He blinked. "Why? Do you suspect somebody there of not playing straight with us?"


"I just need to know. Trust me in this-it's important." I wanted to tell him about the werepuma energy that had shown up on our porch, but Camille had warned against it.


Zachary stared at the ground, looking worn out and confused. "To be honest? I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. We do have a few new members, distant relatives who came from other clans during the past few months. We don't turn away family. I just wish I knew what was going on. If I did, I could probably answer your question better."


Thinking about our own family troubles back in Otherworld, I said, "Sometimes you may not be able to trust anybody but yourself. Sometimes the world turns upside down, and all you can do is hold on for the ride and try to make it out in one piece."


Zach gave me a quizzical look. "I take it you're having problems of your own?" He stepped over a bramble sucker that had grown out onto the path.


"Trust me, we're all hip deep in shit." I looked around. The trail had become much more overgrown since we'd been out here the first time. Maybe Titania had moved on and left it to grow wild. Or maybe Smoky was encouraging the encroaching forest.


I shook my head. "Don't worry about us. We've always got crap going on in our lives. For now, let's focus on your situation. You say that you have a few new members. Do you really know everything there is to know about them? Could they have been skirmishing with the Hunters Moon Clan before joining up with the Puma Pride?" I was trying to find some clue that would link the demons, the werespiders, and the attacks on the Puma Pride.


"I don't know. I suppose I can ask," he said.


"We could come out and explain the situation, if you'd like." It occurred to me that if we could meet more of the Pride members, we might be able to get a sense if anyone was collaborating with the enemy. But Zach nixed that idea and sent my ego crashing to the ground in the same breath.


Cheeks flaming, he said, "Delilah… uh… several of our members have asked that you not be invited back to the compound. Even with Venus's welcome, some have voted against allowing you and your sisters back on our land. I'm sorry. I tried to smooth things over."


"What the fuck did you say?" I stopped and turned to face him. "Let me get this straight to avoid misunderstandings. Do they not want us there because we're strangers, or because… we're who we are?"


He wouldn't meet my gaze. "Please don't think I feel the same way, because I don't. But there's been talk going around… some of our members think you aren't… good influences. They don't like vampires, and they don't trust Camille because she's so blatantly sexual, and…"


"Go on," I said, waiting for the final blow.


"Well, they don't like you because you're… because you aren't a real Were." He let the rest rush out in a jumbled stutter. "You're only a Were because of a birth defect, so you don't carry the true blood in your veins. I guess they see you as unnatural. Venus and I tried to explain, but some of the guys are older and set in their ways." He screeched to a halt, scuffing the ground in silence.


Stunned by the rejection, I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, surprised to find tears trying to force their way topside.

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