Monday, July 13, 2015
A Meeting by Moonlight
The woods surrounding Talbot's Peak tended to fill up after full dark, as the population literally let their inner beasts run loose. By contrast, the streets and sidewalks of the town were practically deserted. Only a few humans and even fewer shifters walked the streets after midnight. Why would anyone bother? The shifters had the woods and the humans had their bedtime. Anyone out and about in town usually had a good reason.
Gypsy's reason was she liked the solitude. Without others around to muddy the auras, she could indulge in feeling the freedom of the untamed forest around her and all the primal sensations that pulsed within. It was like being a wolf without becoming a wolf, though she usually succumbed and shifted before her walk was done.
Tonight, however, she sensed another pedestrian roaming the streets nearby. Circling. Drawing closer to her. Hunting her? Not a problem. She had plenty of time to shift and avoid any pursuers. Or she could cloak her own aura with a simple spell and make herself invisible to the senses, even as she continued to walk plainly along the street.
But this one … This one's aura echoed another's, one familiar to her. Curious, she stayed both visible and human, to see what might approach.
She rounded a corner. There stood a woman, waiting for her. A young and very tiny woman, with black hair streaked with white. Her aura conjured images of the world seen from great heights, and heart-stopping plunges toward prey. A raptor-shifter of some kind, possibly a hawk or a falcon. New to Talbot's Peak.
In spite of that last, Gypsy knew her, after a fashion. She had seen this woman's face in flashes, in the memories of another. The one with whom this woman shared the sense of familiarity.
The woman smiled at Gypsy. She held a medium-sized, rectangular object under one arm, wrapped in butcher paper.
"You're Gypsy, the red wolf," she said with a friendly smile. Her voice carried whispers of an accent, also familiar. "I've been hoping to meet with you."
Gypsy stopped just beyond reach. "You have the advantage of me," she said coolly.
"I doubt if that's possible. My name is Stefanya."
Stefanya. The gyrfalcon. Leader of the Seven. Gypsy had been one of those whose psychic powers had spotted the mercenaries headed for Talbot's Peak. Their purpose here, their target, had become muddled to the Sight of late, somehow blocked from view. But the earliest contacts had muttered Dante.
"You're thinking this is some kind of threat," the woman said, and laughed softly. "Not tonight. Tonight I have a gift for you, on behalf of our mutual friend."
"I don't know who you mean."
"Please. Don't insult me, or him, or yourself. The girls who work at the Pleasure Club will gossip to anyone. Especially that girl who isn't a girl. Ah, that one you do know, yes?"
Gypsy caught herself nodding and stopped. "And what did he tell you?"
"That you had a secret wish. And that you would enjoy this." She held out the package.
It carried no threatening overtones, so Gypsy accepted it and unwrapped it carefully. She gasped.
It was a portrait in oils, exquisitely done. An albino warrior, long-haired and bare-chested, clad in tiger-fur breeches and cape and wielding a massive broadsword. The pattern of stripes on his tiger-skin garment matched Zhere Ghan's in what was probably not a coincidence.
The face belonged to Sergei, her tiger lover. The man who had trained the mercenary standing before her.
But the subject … No one should have known about that passing whim of hers. She'd told only Jamie. Who must have told Lamar. Who would have told anyone, without any urging. Somehow word of her fancy had reached this woman's ears. And this was what she'd done with the knowledge.
A gift? A peace offering? Some kind of diversionary tactic?
"This is remarkable," she said, truly touched. "You have your own magic."
"Me? Fah. I can barely draw a straight line. My Yuri is a man of many talents." She smiled crookedly. "Will you show it to him?"
"He'd be scandalized."
"I know." The women laughed together. "You make him happy," Stefanya said. "In all the years I've known him, he's rarely been happy. Keep him happy."
"I intend to," Gypsy said. She stared at the portrait. She already knew where she would hang it in her home. And when he saw it, there would be curses, then laughter, and then she would apologize in the most delightful way she knew. Repeatedly, if necessary.
When she looked up, Stefanya was gone, as silently and abruptly as her teacher. Even the presence of her aura had disappeared. Gypsy frowned over that. If she knew how to mask her aura, how were the witches to track her? Did her team have those skills as well?
Dante should be kept informed. But not right this minute. Gypsy hurried home, clutching the portrait to her.
# # #
"It's done?" Yuri asked.
"More or less." Stefanya shed her scarf and jacket. "Gypsy was delighted with the painting. She had high praise for your talent. That's the more. This is the less." She tossed a tiny object onto the coffee table. It made a little clink and rolled to a stop.
Yuri frowned at the discarded listening device. "We were supposed to spy on the witch."
"We'll find another witch to spy on. This one's no longer a target."
"She's off the list. Forget her."
Yuri narrowed his panther's eyes. "Because of him? Whatever happened to not letting emotions interfere with the mission?"
"It's emotions that will save us," Stefanya said. "They don't yet know we have a witch of our own. Or shaman, or whatever Irwin is. This Gypsy wolf has Sergei's heart. If our mission goes wronger than it already has, he could come after us. I can't stop him. The Seven together couldn't stop him. Only this Gypsy has the power to turn him aside from his kill. That's a power I want working for us, not against." She met Yuri's glare, once more leader of the Seven. "We leave her alone. We leave them both alone."
"Fine," he said. "What's our next move, then?"
Flee Talbot's Peak, she thought, but didn't say. Not while they still had other options, that might or might not align with their employer's goals. If only she could draw a picture that would lead them all to happiness. Perhaps such an ending was not intended for any of them. "Let me think," she said.