"You need to rest," Cormia said as Bella yawned again.
Fritz had just come in and taken away their First Meal dishes. Bella had had steak and mashed potatoes and mint-chocolate -chip ice cream. Cormia had had the potatoes... and some of the ice cream.
And she'd thought the M&M's had been delightful?
Bella snuggled more deeply into her pillows. "You know, I think you're right. I am tired. Maybe we can finish up the marathon later tonight?"
"Sounds lovely." Cormia slid off the bed. "Do you need anything?"
"No." Bella's eyes closed. "Hey, before you go. What are those candles made of? They are incredibly soothing."
The female seemed awfully pale against her white lace pillowcase. "They're made of sacred things from the other side. Sacred, healing things. Herbs and flowers mixed with a binding made with water from the Scribe Virgin's fountain."
"I knew they were special."
"I'm not going to be far," Cormia blurted.
"Which is good."
As Cormia stepped out of the room, she was careful to shut the door quietly.
She looked behind her. "Fritz? I thought you'd left with the tray."
"I did." He lifted the bouquet he was holding. "I needed to deliver these."
"What lovely flowers."
"They are for the second-floor sitting room." He plucked out a lavender rose and offered it forward. "For you, mistress."
"Why, thank you." She took the delicate petals to her nose. "Oh, how lovely."
Cormia jumped as something brushed her leg.
Bending down, she ran her hand over the black cat's silky, resilient back. "Why, hello, Boo."
The cat purred and leaned into her, his surprisingly strong body shifting her weight.
"Do you care for roses?" she asked him, offering him the bloom.
Boo shook his head and nudged at her free hand, demanding more attention.
"I adore this cat."
"And he adores you," Fritz said, then hesitated. "Mistress, if I may..."
"What is it?"
"The master Phury is down in the training center's of fice, and I believe he could use some company. Perhaps you would¡ª"
The cat let out a loud meow, trotted over in the direction of the grand staircase, and flicked his tail. It seemed as if, had he had arms and hands, he would have been pointing down to the foyer.
The butler laughed. "I think his lordship Boo agrees."
The cat meowed again.
Cormia tightened her grip on the rose's stem as she stood up. Maybe this was a good thing. She needed to tell the Primale that she was leaving. "I should like to see his grace, but are you sure now is the¡ª"
"Good, good! I shall take you to him."
The butler trotted off to the sitting room and returned a moment later. As he came back, there was a spring in his step and a glow to his face, as if he were doing a job he enjoyed.
"Come. Let us descend, mistress."
Boo meowed again and led the way down the stairs and to the left, then over to a black-paneled door tucked in a corner. The butler entered a code on a numerical pad and opened what turned out to be a six-inch-thick steel panel. Cormia followed Fritz down a couple steps... and found herself in a tunnel that seemed to go on forever in both directions.
Looking around, she pulled the lapels of her robe more closely together. It was strange to feel claustrophobic in the midst of so much space, but she was abruptly conscious that they were underground and trapped inside.
"The code, by the way, is 1914," the butler said as he closed them all in and checked to make sure the lock was properly engaged. "That would be the year the house was built. You just enter it here on these pads to get through any of the doors along the way. The tunnel is made up of concrete and steel, and is sealed at all ends. And everything in it is monitored by a security system. There are cameras"¡ª he pointed to the ceiling¡ª"and other monitoring devices. You are as safe here as you would be on the grounds or in the house itself."
"Thank you." She smiled. "I was feeling... a bit unnerved. "
"Perfectly understandable, madam." Boo brushed against her as if he were taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze of reassurance.
"We go this way." The butler walked in a shuffle, his wrinkled face beaming. "The master Phury will love to see you."
Cormia held on to her rose and followed. As she went along, she tried to cast the proper good-bye in her head, and found herself tearing up a little.
She had fought this destiny of hers in the beginning, fought against being First Mate. Yet now, as she was getting what she wanted, she mourned the loss that came with her relative freedom.
Upstairs in the hall of statues, John opened the second door down from his room and turned on the light.
Qhuinn entered the bedroom with care, like he hoped there was no mud on the soles of his New Rocks. "Nice crib."
I'm right next door, John signed.
Both of their phones went off at the same time, and the text was from Phury: Classes canceled for the coming week. Please log on to secured Web-site for more information.
John shook his head. Classes canceled. Clinic sacked. Lash abducted... and likely tortured. The fallout from what had happened in the locker room continued.
Bad news... bad news was coming in more than threes.
"No more classes, huh," Qhuinn murmured as he seemed to get a little too busy putting his duffel bag down. "For anyone."
We need to hook up with Blay, John signed. I can't believe he hasn't texted since night fell. Maybe we should go over there now?
Qhuinn walked to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and pulled back the heavy drapery. "I don't think he's going to want to see me anytime soon. And I know you're signing why behind my back. Just trust me. He's going to need some serious space."
John shook his head and texted Blay: ZeroSum 2nite cuz no class? Hav news bout me n Q.
"He'll say he can't go. Assuming you're texting him to meet up with us."
Qhuinn looked over his shoulder just as the phone beeped. Blay's text read: Cant 2nite busy w fam. will hitchu l8r.
John put his phone in his pocket. What happened?
"Nothing. Everything... I don't know¡ª"
The heavy knock on the door was clearly made by a fist the size of a male's head.
"Yeah?" Qhuinn called out.
Wrath strode in. The king seemed even grimmer than he had been earlier, as if more bad news had come in again over the Brotherhood's transom. In his hand was a black metal briefcase and a tangle of leather.
He lifted both up and looked hard at Qhuinn. "I don't need to tell you not to be an asshole with these, do I?"
"Ah, no... sir. What are they, though?"
"Your two new best friends." The king put the case on the bed, flipped two black locks free, and popped the lid.
Whoa, John mouthed.
Inside, nestled in gray egg-carton padding, were a pair of stinger-lethal Heckler & Koch forty-five-millimeter auto-loaders. After checking the chamber on one, Wrath handed the black weapon to Qhuinn by the muzzle.
"V's going to draw up some ID on you in the Old Language. If shit gets critical, you will flash it, and whoever is up in your grille has to deal with me. Fritz is going to order you up enough ammo to make a squad of Marines get a case of the jels." The king tossed what turned out to be a chest harness at Qhuinn. "You are never not armed when you're with him. Even in this house. Are we clear? That is the way it works."
As Qhuinn hefted the pistol in his palm, John expected his buddy to make a crack about how it was good to have big loads. Instead, he said, "I want free access to the gun range. I'm going to want to be down there at least three times a week. Minimum."
Wrath's mouth lifted on one side. "We'll name the bitch after you, how about that?"
John felt like a voyeur standing between the two of them and saying nothing, but he was fascinated by the change in Qhuinn. Gone was the jocular front. He was all business, suddenly more hard-core than his hard-core clothes.
Qhuinn pointed to a door. "Does that open into his bedroom?"
Vishous walked into the room, and Qhuinn's eyes weren't the only ones that flared. In the Brother's hands were a length of heavy chain with a tag on the end, a pair of pliers, and a tackle box.
"Sitchass down, boy," V said.
"Go on." Wrath nodded at the bed. "Time to get chained¡ªthat dangler has John's crest on it. You're also getting tattooed. This is for life, like I told you."
Qhuinn sat without a word, and V came up behind him, linked the heavy weight around his throat, and then cranked the open link closed. The medallion hung just a little lower than his collarbones.
"Comes off only if you're dead or you get fired." V knocked Qhuinn in the shoulder. "By the way, if you get fired, under the old laws, your pink slip's a guillotine, true? That's how we get the chain off. If you just kick it, though, we'll break one of the links. 'Cuz defiling the dead's tacky. Now for your tat."
Qhuinn started to take his shirt off. "I've always wanted one¡ª"
"You can leave that on." As V popped open his tackle box and took out a tattooing gun, Qhuinn pushed one sleeve up to his shoulder. "Nope, I don't need your arm either."
As Qhuinn frowned, Vishous plugged in the cord and snapped on two black latex gloves. Over on the bedside, he opened one little black jar and one little red one and a larger container that had a clear solution in it.
"Turn around and face me." The Brother took out a stretch of white cloth and a sterilizing pack as Qhuinn swung his New Rocks around and put his hands on his knees. "Look up."
On his face? John thought as V wiped off the top of Qhuinn's left cheek.
Qhuinn didn't budge. Not even when the whirring needle came at him.
John tried to see what was getting inked and couldn't manage it. Odd that red was being used. He'd heard that black was the only color that was allowed¡ª
Holy... shit, John thought as V pulled back.
It was a single red teardrop outlined in black.
Wrath spoke up. "Symbolizes that you're willing to shed your own blood for John. Also lets everyone know, in no uncertain terms, what your position is. If John dies, it will be filled in with black ink, signifying you served someone of interest honorably. If it doesn't work out, it will be boxed with an X to show your shame to the race."
Qhuinn stood and went to the mirror. "I like it."
"Good thing," V said dryly as he came over and smoothed some clear ointment over the ink.
"Can you do one other for me?"
V glanced over at Wrath, then shrugged. "Whatchu got?"
Qhuinn pointed to the back of his neck. "I want ¡®August eighteenth, 2008,' in the Old Language here. And don't make it small."
Today's date, John thought.
V nodded. "Okay. I can do that shit. Hafta be in black, though. That red is only for specials."
"Yeah. Good." Qhuinn went back to the bed and shuf fled around so he was sitting cross-legged on the edge of the mattress. Bending his head, he bared his nape. "And spell out the numbers, please."
"Gonna be big."
V laughed. "I like you, true. Now hold your chain up and let me get to work."
It went relatively quick, the whine of the ink gun fluctuating like a car engine, revving and settling, revving and settling. V added a nice artistic swirl underneath the design, then ran it all around, so the tattoo looked like a fancy plaque.
This time, John stood behind V and watched the whole thing. The three lines of text were gorgeous, and given how long Qhuinn's neck was and how short he kept his hair, they would always show.
John wanted one. But what would it be?
"You're solid," V said as he wiped the skin with the once-white cloth, which was now covered with smudges.
"Thank you," Qhuinn said as V smoothed on more of that ointment, the fresh ink vivid against his golden skin. "Thank you very much."
"You haven't seen it yet. For all you know, I could have inked ¡®jackass' back here."
"Nah. I never doubt you," Qhuinn said, grinning up at the Brother.
Vishous smiled a little, his hard face with its tattoos showing approval. "Yeah, well, you aren't a flincher. Flinchers get fucked. The steady ones get the goods."
V clapped palms with the guy, then packed up and took off while Qhuinn went into the bathroom and used the hand mirror to see the work.
It's beautiful, John signed from behind him. Really beautiful.
"It's exactly what I wanted," Qhuinn murmured as he looked at the ink that covered the whole back of his neck.
When the two of them returned to the bedroom, Wrath put his hand in his back pocket, took out a set of car keys, and gave them to Qhuinn. "These are to the Mercedes. You go anywhere with him, you take that car until we can get you other wheels. The thing's bulletproof, and faster than anything else on the road."
"Can I still take him to ZeroSum?"
"He's not a prisoner."
John stamped his foot and signed, I'm also not a pussy.
Wrath barked a laugh. "Never said you were. John, give him the passwords to all the doors and the tunnel and the gates."
"What about classes?" Qhuinn asked. "When they start up again, do I stay with John then, even though I'm kicked out?"
Wrath went over to the door and paused. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Future's kind of unclear. As fucking usual."
After the king left, John thought about Blay. The guy really should have been with them for all of this.
I'd like to go to ZeroSum, he signed.
"Why? 'Cause you think it's going to get Blay out?" Qhuinn went over to the briefcase and loaded the other gun, the clip sliding into place with a whisper and a click.
You need to tell me what's doing. Now.
Qhuinn put on the holster and plugged the weapons in under his armpits. He looked... powerful. Deadly. With his cropped dark hair and those piercings in his ear and that tat underneath his blue eye, if John hadn't known the guy, he would have sworn he was looking at a Brother.
What happened between you and Blay?
"I cut him loose, and I was cruel about it."
Good God... Why?
"I was on the way to jail for murder, remember? He'd have eaten himself alive worrying about me. It would have ruined his life. Better that he hate me than be lonely for the rest of his days."
No offense, but are you really that important to him?
Qhuinn's mismatched eyes drilled into John's. "Yes. I am. And don't ask any questions about that."
John knew a boundary when he saw it: Conversationally speaking, he'd just run into a concrete wall with barbed wire around it.
I still want to go to ZeroSum, and I still want to give him a chance to meet us out.
Qhuinn pulled a light jacket from his bag and seemed to gather himself as he put it on. When he turned back around, his characteristic smart-ass smile was back in place. "Your wish is my command, prince of mine."
Don't call me that.
As John headed for the exit, he texted Blay, hoping the guy would show eventually. Maybe if he was bugged enough he'd relent?
"So what should I call you?" Qhuinn said as he leaped ahead to open the door with a flourish. "Would you prefer ¡®my liege'?"
Give it a rest, would you.
"How about good ol'-fashioned ¡®master'?" When John just glared over his shoulder, Qhuinn shrugged. "Fine. I'll go with fathead then. But that's your damage, I gave you options."