"Of course," Camille said. Menolly nodded. Trillian pouted until I told him he was welcome, too, and then he declined.
"I just wanted to feel welcome," he said, blinking those icy cold and taunting eyes at me. Camille slapped him, and he gave her a look that would have frozen me cold in my tracks but just set her laughing.
"We'd better start researching everything we can find out about Jansshi demons. We have to know their vulnerabilities, if they have any," Menolly said. "What worries me is that Trenyth said they're stupid. If the Jansshi demon's the brawn, who the hell is playing the brains of the squad? I'm not looking forward to finding out who else we're up against."
"You and me both," I muttered.
Just then, a peal of chimes echoed from upstairs. They could only mean one thing.
"The Whispering Mirror," Camille said, jumping to her feet. She raced toward the steps and up to her study, the rest of us hot on her heels.
The Whispering Mirror had been set up by the Wizards Guild and served the same purpose as a video telephone, linking us to home. Considering that our city was on the verge of civil war, we hadn't been surprised that news was barely trickling out from Y'Elestrial. The OIA had been out of touch with us for over a month, Earthside time. We were worried enough that we'd been discussing making a trip back home to see if Father was okay.
A member of the Guard, he was faithful to Court and Crown, but his loyalty had been put to the test by our troll of a Queen. Well, not a real troll. She was prettier and didn't live under a bridge. But Lethesanar was an opium fiend and had a particularly cruel taste for torture. Last we heard, our father was doing his best to play it neutral, but the time was coming when his loyalty would be tested. If he chose to follow his conscience, then he'd be in danger. The Queen treated traitors as kindly as Menolly treated the pervs she called a Happy Meal.
Camille slid into a chair in front of the Whispering Mirror, which was mounted on the wall beneath a desk and covered by a black velvet cloth. She yanked away the velvet as Menolly and I leaned over her shoulders. Trillian rested himself against the doorjamb.
Framed by the magical silver mined from deep within the Nebelvuori Mountains back in Otherworld, the glass shone with a faint bluish light and the mist within whirled, a chaotic vortex waiting for the right voice to open the link from one dimension to another.
"Camille," she said. The mirror worked on principles much like vox software for computers. After living Earthside for a while, I was beginning to think that the FBHs were gaining on us. I'd developed a fascination for their technology-well, ours, too, considering our mother was human-and I had taken to the computer like a cat in a field of catnip.
After a moment the mist in the mirror began to swirl, then cleared, and we found ourselves staring into our father's face. He and Camille were spitting images of one another. I favored our mother, and Menolly's looks were a genetic throwback to some unknown ancestor.
Medium height, of trim build, Father's hair was the same color as Camille's-raven black-though he wore it in a tightly bound braid. His eyes were the same as hers, too. Violet with silver specks. He was out of uniform and, by the scene in the background, he was at home. Most of the guards who had been in the Des'Estar any length of time had Whispering Mirrors in their homes.
I leaned in and blew him a kiss. "Hey, we were worried about you. What's up?"
He blinked once, then a soft smile grazed his lips. "You remind me so much of your mother, rest her soul." He scanned our anxious faces, his brow lined with furrows that hadn't been there a year ago. "Menolly? How are you doing, child?" He still hadn't fully adjusted yet to the fact that she was a vampire. His long-standing hatred for the undead was tempered only by the reality that his own daughter was one of the afflicted.
She gave him an affected nod, but I could tell they were glad to see one another. "Can't complain. Not much, at least."
Camille cleared her throat. "It's so good to hear from you," she added, relief flooding her voice. "We were thinking of making a trip home to see you."
"What's going on?" I broke in. "Are you okay? Is the war going to be over before it even begins?" Ever the optimist, even I knew the answer to my last question. But hey, hope made living worthwhile.
"Over? No, my girls, it's just beginning. The sides are drawn. The goblins have forged a treaty with Lethesanar and are sending in troops. The Svartans and elves back Tanaquar's claim. The Elfin Queen has officially forged a truce with the King of Svartalfheim, offering manpower and weapons. As you can imagine, her decision has turned heads."
"No doubt," I murmured. The Svartans and elves were born enemies, both lines springing from a single race millennia ago. Somewhere along the line, the race had divided, and the Svartans moved into the shadows while the elves stayed in the light. For them to join forces meant the shit really had hit the fan.
Father didn't know that Queen Asteria had drafted us into her service. Technically, we were traitors to the Court and Crown, but when caught between a cliff and a demon, jumping over the edge starts to look like a damned good idea.
He let out a slow, long breath. "I have little time today, and there are things you must know. Your lives may depend on it."
That sobered us up. "Don't tell me they managed to resurrect Bad Ass Luke somehow," I said. "Demons and zombies and ghouls, oh my!"
"This is serious, Delilah," Father said, glancing over his shoulder. I could see the glass bell clock Mother had taken with her to OW when she married our father and crossed between worlds for good. "My shift starts soon, so listen and listen good."
"Yes, sir," I said, staring at the ground.
He cleared his throat. "Word has it that Lethesanar is about to mount a direct attack on the city of Svartalfheim. My conscience won't allow me to take part. I'm a loyalist to Court and Crown, not to a drug-addled, power-crazed warmonger who no longer can see what stands before her. If we go to battle against Svartalfheim, then…" His expression said everything. Our father was gearing up to desert the Guard, and he'd be skewered if he was caught.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
With a shake of the head, he said, "To be honest, I have no idea. I'll find a way to get in touch with you. I've already moved your things into storage where they will be safe. Your aunt Rythwar knows where to find everything. She was forced to flee the city and is living well outside Y'Elestrial's boundaries. There's a death threat on her head."
Camille gasped. Both Menolly and I stared at our father, slack-jawed. Our aunt had been a close friend of Lethesanar's and had lived in the inner courts
"Holy crap. What happened?" I asked.
"She was working for Tanaquar." Father took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Lethesanar found out. She put a death threat and a bounty on your aunt's head. Rythwar is hiding out. And…" He paused, looking uncertain. "I'm not sure how to say this."
"Just say it," I said. Whatever the news was, I had a feeling it wasn't going to be a happy picnic in the park.
"Because of Camille's involvement with Trillian, you may shortly find yourselves unemployed. If so, hightail it back through the portals before the Queen takes it into her head to close them entirely. You don't want to be stranded Earthside."
I coughed. "There are always the Elemental portals, like the ones belonging to Grandmother Coyote and Pentangle. They aren't under the OIA jurisdiction." Which immediately reminded me of the demons headed our way. "There's another Degath Squad running loose over here."
Father closed his eyes for the briefest of moments. "I'm so sorry, my girls. I have the feeling it will be a long time before things are back to normal." He wiped his eyes, older and wearier than I'd ever seen him look.
"You'd better kiss any help from the OIA good-bye," Trillian said grimly. "Maybe you'd best do as your father suggests and go home."
"We can't just leave," Camille said. "Shadow Wing is too great a threat. He'll find the rest of the seals, and both Earth and Otherworld will be doomed. There's no place to hide."
"She's right." I snorted. "What makes you think OW will be safe much longer if Shadow Wing is allowed free rein in Earth? Let's face it, we're all screwed and pretty much alone in this mess."
Father coughed. "Not entirely. You said Queen Asteria believed you about Shadow Wing."
I glanced at him, wondering just how much he knew. Camille must have been thinking the same thing, because she gave me one of those should we tell him looks. I shook my head. As much as I wanted to, we couldn't take the chance. Too much rode on secrecy.
"Yeah, she does." I let out a soft breath, then asked the question we were all thinking. "Can't you join us here? We could use your help."
He shook his head. "No, I can't." There was a noise on Father's side of the mirror. "Someone's at the door. I have to go. I doubt if I'll be able to contact you for a long while. Remember, your aunt Rythwar knows what's happening. She's living in a small house on the Riellsring River, en route to the Nebelvuori Mountains. There's a glade of oak trees shortly before you reach Sandstone Falls, and behind that glade, a wild berry patch. She lives a mile or so farther toward the mountains. Don't look for a path; there isn't one. And don't tell anyone where she is."
The noise grew louder; we could hear pounding on the door and then a voice echoed into the room. "Captain, the Queen requires your attendance in her court. We're moving against Svartalfheim tonight, sir!"
Father gave us one last desperate look. "It's begun," he said. "If something should happen to me, never forget that I love you. And your mother loved you. Keep to your conscience and do what you know is right, regardless of the outcome. I'm so proud of you."
"Father-" Camille cried out, reaching toward the mirror.
I could only stare as the glass grew dark and then, once again, clouded over with mist. "Oh Great Lady Bast, either he marches to war or will be marked as a traitor. What are we going to do?"
Menolly sighed. "We'll do exactly what he said. Follow our conscience. Delilah, there's nothing we can do right now back home. We'd end up tossed in prison. We'll do what we can here and pray that the gods protect Father and Aunt Rythwar. Meanwhile," she said, glancing at the clock, "we'd better stick to our routines in case we're being watched. It's time for me to go to work." Menolly ran the Wayfarer Bar & Grill, working the night shift.
I frowned. How the hell was I supposed to focus on work when all this crap was happening? When we'd first been assigned to our Earthside posts, it had been a pain in the butt. Now it was a full-scale nightmare. But Menolly was right. As much as I longed to race home and try to put everything to rights, I knew there was nothing we could do there.
"If I ever get my hands on Lethesanar…" I grumbled, leaving the thought unfinished.
Camille rested her hand on my shoulder as we turned to go back downstairs. "Everything will work out. Wait and see. Father's smart, and so is Aunt Rythwar. And hey, if we get fired, well, hell, there are dozens of things I'd rather be doing than working for a bureaucratic nightmare."
I gave her a faint smile, then laughed. "And you call me an optimist? But thanks, I can use a good dose of happy-ever-after." We went back downstairs, but I knew that all of our thoughts were focused on the family we held most dear.
* * *
Things weren't any better the next morning. We were all on edge, and it didn't help matters that before I managed to make it to the breakfast table, Trillian stopped me in the hallway.
Meticulous as usual, he was wearing a pair of black jeans, a pale gray turtleneck, and high-heeled motorcycle boots. His leather jacket hugged his waist and was decorated with studs and buckles. He and Camille made quite the pair, all right. Crossing the boundary between pirate and urban ninja, Trillian was a hunk. An arrogant bastard, but a hunk nonetheless.
"Morning," I said, yawning. As usual, I'd stayed up half the night and was planning on a nice little catnap in my office later on. I sniffed the air and was greeted with the aroma of sausage and hotcakes drifting down the hall. "Ready for breakfast? By the smell of things, Iris has been at the stove again."
"She's a talented cook," Trillian said, stopping me with the barest of touches on my arm. "Before we eat, I want you to promise to do something for me, Delilah." His eyes were liquid, molten ice, and if I was any weaker, he might have cajoled a "Sure thing" out of me without further explanation. But I knew Trillian too well. Any time he wanted a favor, it was bound to be for his benefit alone.
"What do you want?"
"Still don't trust me?" he said, a slight curve to the corner of his mouth. That curve turned Camille into mush, but it just made my skin crawl. He was cunning and crafty, all right. "I want you to convince Chase that I'm not going to rob him blind, tie him up, castrate him, or tear up his apartment." He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, giving me an insider smile that came across as crocodile-in-waiting. "Your boyfriend won't let me stay there alone."
I snorted. "That sounds like Chase, all right. I take it this little arrangement isn't working out so well? Why don't you just hurry up and find an apartment?"
Trillian huffed impatiently. "I have standards."