Lady Dragon — Winner, Lesbian Science Fiction/Fantasy.Praise for D Jordan Redhawk
Orphan Maker — Winner, GCLS Goldie Awards
"Well-crafted, unique!" - Lesbian Reading Room
The day was still new with promise. Indirect sunlight brought out the reddish highlights of Margaurethe O’Toole’s shoulder-length mahogany hair. Though slight of form, she was tall, giving her a waif-like appearance. Today she wore a black business suit designed to offset this perceived delicacy. Deep-set emerald eyes scanned her surroundings as her mind did the same. She felt the presence of the two aga’usi before she saw them flanking the double doors leading into the executive offices. She nodded her approval with a smile.
“Good morning, Ki’an Gasan Margaurethe.” A guard opened one door.
“Good morning, Peiter. Thank you. Is Father Castillo still here?”
“Yes, Ki’an Gasan. And Sublugal Sañar Valmont is also in audience with the Ninsumgal.”
Margaurethe let that information pass without comment as she slipped into the office sitting room. Regardless of what had transpired three months ago, she didn’t trust Valmont. In light of his involvement in her rescue from the hands of the Sanguire assassin, she’d been willing to ease her negative opinion of him…until she’d heard of his confession during her absence. He’d had designs on kidnapping Whiskey and spiriting her away to Europe. Margaurethe’s discovery of his original traitorous intentions toward Whiskey hadn’t facilitated confidence. That he still served as an advisor was a point of contention between her and Whiskey.
The Human executive assistant smiled as she stood. She skirted the monstrosity of a reception desk, a stalwart symbol of final defense protecting Whiskey from the uninitiated petitioner. “They’re in her office, Ki’an Gasan. Would you like me to make you tea?”
“Thank you, Helen. That would be lovely.” The assistant went one way and Margaurethe the other. She paused at Whiskey’s door, the tendrils of her mind reaching out until it brushed against a number of essences and sensations on the other side. The only one that mattered was the aroma of roses, blood and a slight hint of water. The aroma grew stronger as Whiskey noted Margaurethe’s mental contact and strengthened it. With a polite tap at the door, Margaurethe opened it and stepped inside.
The interior was standard as far as offices went. Whiskey was the president of The Davis Group, and money hadn’t been spared to fill the office with expensive furniture. Her desk alone was a work of art with engraved carvings that had taken artisans months of toil to complete. Dark wooden shelves held tomes and scrolls from all the ages. The only incongruent piece was an ancient scarred writing table made of pine pushed against the wall behind the desk.
Two of the occupants rose as Margaurethe entered. “No, don’t get up,” she said, waving both Father James Castillo and Whiskey Davis into their seats. They both ignored her. Valmont, ever the annoyance, didn’t even make the attempt, a sardonic grin lighting his dark face. Margaurethe refused to react to his impertinence though she felt an irrational tickle of aggravation at his petty behavior. Instead, she experienced satisfaction at the sight of the fourth person in the room standing behind Whiskey—a personal bodyguard that Margaurethe had hired immediately after the kidnapping and assassination fiasco three months ago. She smiled a greeting to everyone, even Valmont, taking Whiskey’s offered hand and coming around the desk. Bending in for a kiss, she suddenly wished they were alone. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“Not a thing.” Whiskey wore black cargo pants and a white button-up shirt. The sleeves were partially rolled up her forearms, revealing the twining tails of two dragons on her right arm. A delicate golden locket rested in the hollow at the base of her throat. Her light blond hair hung straight past her shoulders. She’d tied back the sides, leaving the back loose, and long bangs framed her oval face. The only other jewelry she wore was a signet ring on her left middle finger, the large onyx stone carved with the likeness of a scorpion. It was the sigil of her house, one she’d researched extensively before deciding upon. Margaurethe remained uncertain as to how the Agrun Nam would react to it when they arrived, providing they knew much of scorpions to begin with. Scorpions were solitary hunters, vicious and poisonous, apt to sting first and investigate later. That Valmont had heartily approved of the design hadn’t eased Margaurethe’s mind.
“Actually, I was just preparing to leave.” Castillo hadn’t returned to his seat. He was shorter than Margaurethe, though of similar stature. His dark brown hair was wavy and hung to his shoulders and a neatly trimmed beard graced his face. Margaurethe had never seen him wearing anything but the cassock and collar of his order. An ornate Gothic-style cross around his neck was his only jewelry. “I’ve about bored My Gasan to tears with ancient history.”
“He’s not lying.” Whiskey rolled her eyes.
“I should hope not. He’s a priest.” Margaurethe smiled. “He’d hardly set a proper example for his flock if he had difficulty speaking the truth.” Having ignored Valmont for as long as politely possible, she finally did more than glance at him. He looked as dusty brown as ever, both in clothing and skin color. His hair was an elaborate mop of dreadlocks, and a goatee circled his sardonic lips. “And how are you this morning, Valmont?”
His eyes widened in a parody of surprise. “Why I’m spectacular, Ki’an Gasan Margaurethe. So kind of you to ask.”
With effort, the smile remained on Margaurethe’s face. Her duties to Valmont complete, she turned back to Castillo. “Actually, Father, I was wondering if perhaps we could speak a moment.”
“Certainly, Ki’an Gasan. I’ve nothing scheduled until this afternoon.”
Whiskey raised an inquisitive eyebrow, and Margaurethe smiled reassurance. She felt the featherlight touch of her lover’s mind, meeting it with her own. The connection lasted only a moment before Whiskey lifted their entwined hands to kiss Margaurethe’s knuckles.
Again Margaurethe wished they were alone. The past three months had seen many issues settled between them. Margaurethe didn’t know if it was her view of Whiskey that had changed, or that Whiskey had indeed grown into her capabilities. She didn’t care. What mattered was that something fundamental had altered between them after Whiskey had put down the assassin, Andri. An emotional stumbling block within Margaurethe had disappeared and she no longer spent vast hours worrying for her lover’s safety. She glanced over Whiskey’s shoulder at the personal bodyguard standing silently in the corner. That probably doesn’t hurt, either.
With some effort Margaurethe released Whiskey and stepped toward the door. Castillo preceded her, opened the door and bowed farewell to Whiskey, gesturing Margaurethe to lead the way.
Margaurethe’s last vision was Valmont hastening to his feet to give a formal bow and a jaunty wink. She couldn’t help the sour turn of her lips as Castillo closed the door behind them. “That man is irrepressible.”
“Perhaps.” Castillo smiled at the executive secretary hustling toward them. “But he teaches Whiskey things neither of us can.”
Margaurethe hmphed. She graciously accepted the cup of tea Helen brought, accepting apologies for its lateness and expressing her own for having to rush away. She took the cup with her as she led the way toward the executive dining room. The room was empty, as expected for a Sunday morning. Most of the management staff that resided on property were either sleeping in or enjoying their breakfasts in the resident lounge on the fifteenth floor. If it weren’t for the impending arrival of the Agrun Nam she and Whiskey would still be abed as well.
She took Castillo to a table in the back, far enough away from the entrance and kitchen access doors to keep from being overheard should someone enter. No one would be on duty in the kitchen today anyway. If the Agrun Nam chose to remain on property, they could utilize the resident lounge like everyone else. Besides, a welcome reception with plenty of food had been planned for later this evening. She put the never-ending to-do list out of her mind. “I’ll get right to it, Father. You work closely with Whiskey. How is she?”
If he thought her question odd, he didn’t say so. “She’s doing well. She’s yet to be stumped by any of her lessons. Quick to think on her feet. Her critical reasoning is growing by leaps and bounds, and she’s surpassed me in math and sciences. Which reminds me, you’ll need to find a tutor for her in those areas.”
A frown creased Margaurethe’s face. “That’s not what I meant.”
Castillo studied her, as if gauging his response. Just as Margaurethe prepared to demand an answer, he spoke. “She’s in pain. A friend under her protection has died, the love of her life was seriously endangered, she killed an elder in her first formal adult duel, and at least one of her mortal enemies will be arriving this afternoon to live within her defenses.”
Margaurethe sat back, the words slapping her with their bluntness.
“But this is nothing new to you, Ki’an Gasan.”
“I know. But I’m too close.” Margaurethe stared into her tea, not finding answers. “She hides things from me.”
“She doesn’t want to hurt you.”
Her lips thinned. “It’s not me who’s hurting.”
Castillo leaned forward. “Perhaps not, but it’s the only way she knows to protect you.”
Margaurethe tilted her head, eyes sharp. “Are you her confessor as well as her advisor?”
“She’s not a member of my church, I can hardly be her confessor. Besides, I’m not currently active.” He smiled and relaxed in his chair. “But I do what I can.”
He had certainly become cockier over time. The longer he worked as one of Whiskey’s advisors, the more he settled into the position. Margaurethe rather enjoyed their early days when she could browbeat him to keep him in line. It was obvious his time with Valmont had sullied him. Or perhaps it was all that time he’d spent with Whiskey’s pack of younglings before they’d come to live here. Shepherding that particular flock had to have influenced some attitude changes.
He seemed aware he had displeased her for the smile left his face. “My apologies for being flippant, Ki’an Gasan. I realize you care deeply for Whiskey. We all do.”
Somewhat mollified, she wiped the dour expression from her face. “Do you think she’s coping well? Is she in any danger?”
Castillo’s gaze swept away as he considered the question. “I believe she’s coping as well as she can. Her mechanisms always veer toward stuffing it down and being alone. She’s spent years in foster care or on the streets. You don’t survive that with your heart on your sleeve.” He focused on Margaurethe once more. “But she’s grown considerably on an emotional level since her walk along the Strange Path. You didn’t know her before—I can see a radical difference in her behavior and thought patterns. I think as long as we’re all available for her, she’ll be fine.”
She couldn’t help but notice his inflection. “All of us? Including Valmont, I suppose?”
His face was unreadable. “Yes, Sublugal Sañar Valmont was included in that statement.”
“Whatever did he do to impress you, Father?” Margaurethe shook her head. “He has done nothing but lie about his intentions for months, exposing Whiskey to risks for his entertainment, not arguing with her when she pulled that idiotic stunt to rescue me. Do you know he even swore noninterference with Andri so she could fight him herself?” she said, referring to the most recent incident involving an elusive assassin that had come very near to succeeding at killing Whiskey.
“Yes, I’m aware of the situation. But he told the truth, Margaurethe. He confessed his traitorous activities to his ruler, and swore fealty a second time. He’s been nothing but the epitome of an advisor and friend since.” Castillo’s gaze reflected an odd haunting look. “He’s paid for his original sin a thousand times over. Isn’t it time to let him start anew?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you speaking of Valmont or yourself?”
His brow cleared, a smile quirking his lips. “That didn’t answer my question.”
“And I notice that you didn’t answer mine.” Before he could respond she waved the topic away, changing the subject. “So you’re of the opinion that Whiskey is doing fine as far as her emotional welfare is concerned?”
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances. It’s good that she’s had the time to work through her thoughts and feelings before the Agrun Nam arrives. Speaking of which,” he cocked his head, “what time should I be at the airport?”
Margaurethe sighed. “Their plane should land at two thirty this afternoon.” She rolled her eyes. “Their assorted personnel began arriving three days ago and are in the process of setting up residence as we speak. They’ve had hundreds of deliveries, cases of documents, personal effects, and the like. Thank you for suggesting bomb dogs. While they haven’t found anything, the added assurance eases my mind.”
“You’re most welcome.”
“You’ll be available to attend the soiree this evening?”
He bowed his head in agreement. “Of course. I look forward to it.”
“I’m glad someone is, Father. Other than Reynhard, the rest of us will be biting our nails to the quick.”
* * *
Whiskey watched the door close behind Margaurethe and Castillo with mixed emotions. I wish the Agrun Nam were already here and gone.
“I believe that’s my cue to depart as well.”
She looked at Valmont who had remained standing. “You’d better be here tonight. If I have to suffer through this, so do you.”
Valmont affected injury as he held a hand to his chest. “I would never leave you to the tender mercies of the Agrun Nam alone. Besides, Aiden can be such a bore. You’ll need at least one person to talk to that isn’t interested in etiquette. How droll.” His lips quirked into a smile at her laugh. “I’ll be here with bells on. Five o’clock?”
“Yes. Margaurethe says they’ll be here around three this afternoon. That should give them time to get settled before the reception.” She pushed to her feet and came around the desk. “What are the chances of you getting dressed up for the occasion?”
He snorted at her, taking her offered hand. “Slim to none, I’d say. My days as a dandy have long passed, My Gasan.”
Her smile was a sad one, the melancholy brought on by memories of political receptions past when a much younger Valmont had delighted in the color and splendor of a new outfit. The recollections weren’t hers; they belonged to Elisibet Vasillas, the Sweet Butcher of the European Sanguire. Most of those memories were brutal and unwanted, but occasionally Whiskey uncovered gems of pleasure. It was odd how she missed the Valmont of old though she’d never met him. She shook his hand. “Maybe so, but does it really take you seven hours to prepare?”
Valmont laughed, releasing her. “I’ve been discovered!” He glanced past Whiskey at the woman posted behind the desk. “Jake, help me out here.”
Whiskey turned to regard the bodyguard who had been her constant companion for almost three months. She had the same height and coloring as Whiskey, though her hair was prematurely graying and her eyes were hazel. She appeared to be in her late twenties, but Whiskey knew her to be over five hundred thirty years old.
Jake raised an elegant eyebrow at Valmont. “That’s not in my job description, Sublugal Sañar Valmont.”
Valmont grumbled with little heat, a grin still teasing the corners of his mouth. “Since I’ve been thrown under the bus by your protector, I’ll take my leave. I may come early to welcome your guests.” He stepped backward, bowing low as he went. The obeisance usually annoyed Whiskey, which is why he did it. “Until this afternoon or evening, My Ninsumgal.”
Whiskey pointed at him, warning in her tone. “Count on it.” Once he was gone, her humor melted away. She drifted toward the window, staring out at the park across the street and the river beyond.
Soon the person responsible for the two assassination attempts against her would arrive. She’d demanded that the Agrun Nam send three representatives to her and had no doubt that the man would be among them. At least she knew it was a man—the only woman on the council was Bertrada Nijmege, and her goal was to kill Whiskey herself. Whiskey blew out a breath, knowing that Nijmege would probably be one of the representatives too. The Agrun Nam had spent months attempting to retrieve Whiskey and bring her to Europe. That had failed, which left Nijmege no other choice but to come to her. Arms crossed, Whiskey leaned one shoulder against the window frame. Her stomach twisted, a light reminder of the forthcoming emotional turmoil she’d have to endure as she met people who actively wanted her death. Why did I ask them here again? Oh, yeah. To make things right. That was a laugh.
“You should move away from the window, Ninsumgal. You’re making a target of yourself.”
Whiskey looked at her bodyguard. Jake’s skin was of a lighter hue than hers, but from far enough away that detail wasn’t noticeable. Reynhard Dorst, Whiskey’s security advisor, had recommended Susan “Jake” Jacobsen for this position just after Margaurethe’s kidnapping and rescue, citing that at the very least Jake could double for Whiskey from a passable distance. To that end, Jake had moved forward to mimic Whiskey’s stance, facing her. She did that a lot. It was almost annoying in a younger sibling sort of way. “Are you ready for tonight?”
“Of course, Ninsumgal. I’ve read all the dossiers that Sañur Gasum Dorst has given me. I also receive updated reports regarding the movements of Agrun Nam personnel in this and the neighboring building.” She tapped the tiny wireless radio bud in her ear.
Leaning her temple against the frame, Whiskey studied Jake. “Does Reynhard foresee any trouble?”
“At this sort of function? Doubtful.” Jake stared out the window beside her, eyes scanning every pedestrian, every vehicle passing on the street below. “Whomever has threatened you works alone until he contracts an assassin. He’ll use the reception tonight to gauge the situation—check security, judge the general feel of the people in attendance. He’ll be looking for potential allies and connections. So far he’s been meticulous in his planning, so it’s doubtful he’ll suddenly decide to throw caution to the winds and personally attack you, especially in a public place. He remains secretive to capitalize on your demise; he needs to be officially disassociated from your death.”
Whiskey grinned, turning so her back was against the window frame. “Good. Then you can take the night off.”
Jake smiled, a glint of humor sparking in her eyes as she continued to search for danger. When in a room full of people, she portrayed studious attention or bristled with danger. Only when Whiskey was alone with her did she loosen up, though she never forgot her duty. “Not likely, Ninsumgal.”
“Don’t you get tired of it? Following me around, day in and day out? Never getting to cut loose?”
“No, My Gasan, I don’t. This is what I enjoy doing.” Her smile widened at Whiskey’s scoff of disbelief. “Besides, where else can I get an opportunity to practice my Setswana?”
Whiskey laughed at the reference to the language spoken by Chaniya, the African youngling who had attached herself to Whiskey’s entourage. Whiskey’s pack had become a conglomeration as racially mixed as her board of directors. Whiskey was the youngest of them, the oldest being Daniel at a venerable fifty years of age, and members represented a cross-section of American, European, African and American Indian peoples. Chaniya had come aboard months ago when her mother had been sent to negotiate with The Davis Group. She’d stayed because her mother, Dikeledi, had joined the corporate board. Chaniya had tutored both Whiskey and Jake in Setswana slang, teaching them vulgar words that Whiskey could never use in her business conversations with Dikeledi.
Using her shoulders, she pushed away from the window frame and returned to her desk. A current photo of Betrada Nijmege looked back at her from the computer monitor. The years hadn’t been kind. Two deep lines bisected her brow, lines that were mere hints in Elisibet’s memories. Coupled with a sharp beak of a nose, the effect was one of a bird of prey, ever vigilant, ever seeking some hapless rodent upon which to dine. And Whiskey was the rat.
Whiskey leaned across the desk, propping her chin on one hand as the other played across the leather texture of the blotter. As she studied the image, her fingers tingled. It took a moment before she realized that she no longer caressed the blotter, instead reaching through the paper and leather with her gift, touching the wood beneath. After months of disappointment, not knowing what psychic talent would manifest once she reached maturity, it had come as a shock to discover she was Gidimam Kissane Lá, a fabled Ghost Walker. That gift had saved her life more than once, and she’d become skilled in its use. These days it was as common as breathing. She jerked her fingers away from the surface of the desk and the tingling sensation stopped.
A glance over her shoulder showed Jake back in position behind her, staring out the window. That was the good thing about Jake; despite being constantly underfoot, her presence rarely impinged on Whiskey’s senses. It wasn’t that she was invisible, or that Whiskey had simply become accustomed to her constant attendance. Something about Jake made her blend into the background until she was needed. So far she hadn’t been.
Whiskey knew that was going to change very soon.
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