Thursday, March 31, 2016
Ill Met by Moonlight
Stefanya soared above Talbot’s Peak on gyrfalcon wings. At first she told herself she flew with purpose. To prove it, she made a point of performing aerial recon over their targets’ strongholds, even though the Seven had already gathered such intel. Updating, she justified it. When all along she knew she was only marking time.
She took the farthest first, the spreading cattle ranch owned by Brandon Fledermaus. His vast herds covered the even vaster plains, fattening themselves on rich grass with no cowboys in sight. That was because the guards were in the trees, and in the air. She’d barely crossed into Flying F territory when a flock of bats darted up to meet her, shifters by their size. Among the browns and flying foxes she spotted the snub-nosed vampires Alec had warned them about. Brand’s enforcers. If they ID’d her as anything other than a normal bird, she’d be deep in trouble indeed. She dipped her wings and slid away, back to neutral ground. The bats did not pursue, returning instead to their hidden roosts to await other possible threats.
No such aggressive security met her at Hancock’s mountain fortress. The Hancock pack had ruled this territory for decades. They considered themselves invincible. A single bird lay beneath their notice. Stefanya circled the Peak unchallenged and studied them at her leisure, noting numbers, guards, schedules. This was information she already had. Busywork. She left the mountain for the lower forests, and Zhere Ghan’s palatial manor.
Like the wolves, the tigers patrolling the grounds in both forms paid no attention to her. All but the one on the roof. He watched her steadily from beneath the brim of his broad black hat. Of course he recognized her. At one time they’d been as close as father and daughter, when she was younger and far more naïve. Stefanya was neither now. She wondered if Sergei had ever been.
She dropped, though not low enough to rouse suspicion in the other tigers. She fluttered her wings in their old code. He nodded once, then left the roof. Stefanya returned to Talbot’s Peak, and considered the lies she must now tell Yuri about where she’d be going tonight and why he could not come with her. The first lies of many, she feared.
# # #
After dark Stefanya returned to the compound, with only the moon to see. The white tiger waited for her in the forest just beyond the walls. She came to earth as falcon, but landed in her human form.
Sergei also shifted. “Little diver,” he greeted her. The old endearment. She tried not to flinch, but he noticed. He noticed everything. His habitual grave expression grew darker. “This is not friendly visit, yes?”
"Teacher." Stefanya bowed her head briefly. She had loved him as a father, and respected him still. “We’ve received our orders,” she told him without preamble. “Zhere Ghan is one of the targets.”
She waited for a reaction. His face remained impassive. “It will mean death for him,” she added. “When we strike, we never fail.”
Sergei shrugged. “Zhere Ghan has too many enemies to count. Get in line, as Americans say.” He narrowed his icy eyes. “Why tell me this? Does this not ruin attack? You know far better, Stefanya.”
“You’re not a target. This isn’t your fight. There’s no reason for you to die for his sake. I—” She clamped her lips shut against Don’t want to see you hurt.
Her former teacher didn’t answer. Perhaps he read her unspoken words in her face. Yes, of course he did.
“I’ve already told him the Seven are here,” he said finally. “I will tell him this also. You know I must.”
“Why?” she burst out. “He’s evil. He’s proved that repeatedly. You’ve never served evil. Why serve him?”
He looked away, towards the surrounding treetops. “Is old debt. The kind not easily repaid. Honor, blood and death bind us. If threat comes, I must defend him.” He lowered his gaze to meet hers. “Even from you.”
“That won’t be so easy. I know you, teacher. Your favorite moves. The way you think.”
“Opposite is true,” he reminded her. “I didn’t teach you everything I know.”
“I’ve learned new things since.” She flexed her fingers like talons. “Walk away. Remove yourself from the fight. Ghan has enough guards. He won’t even notice your absence.”
To her surprise, he chuckled. “You are not first woman to tell me this.”
“You should listen to that woman. She’s wiser than either of us.”
“Da. She is.” He regarded her somberly. “I won’t ask you to abandon your mission. It would be futile, yes?”
She couldn’t meet his eyes any longer. She wanted to look toward the sky, her second home, but knew she’d find no consolation there. “Yes,” she echoed.
“Then do what your honor demands. And so will I.” She heard a swish of leaves. When she looked up at last, Sergei was gone.
I tried, she told herself. It’s business now. The mission. She hurriedly shifted and shot toward the sky. Besides her wings, her falcon form had the advantage of being unable to cry.