But He Didn't Let Me Go

I smelled/heard/tasted the attack before it came, a single breath, pulled in over my tongue, the taste of betrayal. Scent-laden with pheromones: the clan's Mercy Blade, vamps; Sabina, the older priestess who lived in the vamp graveyard; Katie and Leo. Distinct pops of displaced air, vamp-speed. Blurs of motion.

My expectations ruined me. I expected Bruiser to release me and move two steps to my side. I expected him to draw a weapon. I did not expect him to freeze, my arm clamped to his side, stealing my single moment of reaction time. I did not expect his whispered "Leo. I - No!" I jerked my arm and twisted my body.

Bruiser held on to me. And my trust was shattered.

Katie caught my free arm, which was reaching for my ankle holster, in a vise. The Mercy Blade stepped on my foot, which was lifting to my hand, and forced it back to the cement floor. Sabina circled behind me and caught my head, twisting my chin up, stretching my neck, holding me still. I was immobilized. The electric door whirred down behind us, enclosing us in the dark. Leo walked out of the echoing shadows, footsteps measured and slow. He was vamped out, his fangs snapped down, eyes all black pupil in bloody, scarlet sclera. Sabina unlatched the clasp on my silver and titanium necklace.

Bruiser swallowed, the sound of his throat moving loud in the sudden silence. "I brought her to you. But . . . This is not what . . ." His voice sounded thick, confused, and trailed off into nothing, but my eyes were on Leo. I understood what was about to happen. My heart thumped hard once and raced to a limping beat. I wrenched my body, fighting for freedom. It was like wrestling shaped steel.

Beast is not prey! she raged inside me.

"George. Bruiser. Don't let him do this," I said, my words strangled from the angle of my neck.

"I . . . can't. I'm sorry," he said again, real regret clotting his voice, and maybe real pain.

Leo stepped up to me, like a dance step, measured, smooth, like the opening movement to a tango. He was slight but strong, shoulder-length black hair pulled back in a queue with a black ribbon, the end hanging over one shoulder. His eyes, Frenchy black; his face, usually so pale, was now suffused with blood. He looked well fleshed, as if he had been working out and had put on muscle. His usual scent, like pepper and papyrus, was different, with a hint of berries and oak and fermentation, like fine wine. I realized that Leo had fed long and deeply.

His fangs clicked down, three inches of glistening white, his jaw having to do something odd to allow the movement. My breath heaved and my heart raced, and Leo's eyes bled slowly black and scarlet, vamping out as he smelled my fear. "You, my new Enforcer, have equally served me well and caused me much grief," he said, the words sibilant and echoing in the empty space. "You found my enemy, which is a service to be well rewarded. But this trouble you have brought to me must end. I have taken council of my advisers and have discovered a way to reward you for both." He smiled, and my heart sped even faster. Leo chuckled softly and leaned in, breathing deeply of my panic. "Yessss," he whispered, his lips close to my ear. "And then you will be my new Enforcer indeed. You will be bound to me as the Carta rightly requires. You, rather than my George, will act as my second in the Blood Challenge I will issue to this enemy you have identified." He smiled and it was snakelike. "That is, if you survive your own duty and fate."

"Boss - Leo, don't - " Bruiser stopped as if his throat was choked shut and buried his face in my hair, speaking now to me. "I'm sorry," Bruiser whispered, the word echoing exactly as Leo's had. "I can't stop him. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." I could smell his misery, his self-disgust. His compulsion. He was sorry. But he didn't let me go. He couldn't. He was blood-trapped, blood-drunk. Compelled. Leo's slave. This was why vamps were evil. This stealing of will.

"I'm sorry for causing you trouble," I said, fear like lightning, my words gasping. "And I don't need any reward for discovering Lucas de Allyon. I haven't even proved he's your enemy. I said it's possible."

"Your analysis was exemplary and your conclusion valid," Gee said. "We concur with your hypothesis and analysis. My master's true-dead uncle had previous . . . rivalry with this Mithran regarding some small territorial disputes following the Civil War. Hence this necessity."

Leo lifted a hand to my face, calloused along the thumb side of his index finger, and warm from all the blood he had ingested. The Mercy Blade pressed against my knees and they buckled, the vamps riding me down until my knees hit the cool floor, a supplicant, as if begging. I might have thought that Gee DiMercy would save me as he did once before, would have compassion, but he wasn't human either. And he too was Leo's.

Bruiser fell to his knees beside me, still holding my arm. I started to threaten Leo, but Sabina yanked down on my bun so hard my hair tore and my scalp bled. I could smell it. I fought to inhale with my head at this angle, my breath sounding tortured. Leo bent over me, his black hair falling forward, to caress my cheeks. From the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of steel and smelled Leo's blood where he cut himself. One of Sabina's inhumanly strong hands held my head back; the other hand pinched my nose closed.

"Blood to blood," Leo murmured, "mind to mind. My power calling to your power." He bit into my throat. Electric pain cut through me. Magic slammed into me, hot and wet, raw and scarlet, heavy with semisolid things that flooded into my spirit cave and molded to my soul like clots.

Leo's wrist covered my mouth as I gasped. I breathed down the drops of blood and the magic, choking, feeling it hit my lungs and slam into my bloodstream, my jaws suddenly aching with heavy pressure, my fingertips burning, as Beast struggled to break free. There was nothing of compulsion in Leo, nothing of the painkilling laving of tongue that could have blunted the pain. Nothing of the mesmerizing ability that made the taking of blood pleasurable for the victim. This was control. This was dominance, not the reward he'd promised. If I fought, he'd rip out my throat.

As soon as I thought that, a wave of pleasure rippled through me, starting at my neck and following every nerve ending across my torso to settle low in my belly. Heat and desire coiled there, mating together. No, I thought. No . . .

Tears blurred my eyes, and my stomach roiled. My mouth filled with Leo's blood, almost human-warm, gelatinous, with a sharp, peppery, fermented flavor. I had no choice but to swallow. My gulps tore my throat where Leo's teeth pierced me, and more pain/pleasure flared out. My heart beat fast against my ribs as he drank, fangs buried deep, lips sealed tight. Sucking hard. And I swallowed as he swallowed, a dance of pleasure and agony. Two, three, six gulps. Need cascaded through me with each sip of his blood. If my hands had been free, I'd have clutched him to me, and I hated him for that control, for that want. This was what made blood-slaves willing to do anything to get their next high. Anything at all.

Leo's arm moved from my mouth and I finally got a breath, inhaling, the sound a hissing panic and a gasping desire, and Leo drank in my fear and craving. He slid his arms around me and pushed me flat to the floor, until I stared up at the shadows. Sabina released me, stepping away; the Mercy Blade followed her, leaving me on the floor with Leo and Bruiser. They held me between them, the two of them, as Leo's magic welled up, twining around me, sliding inside me, like electric vines. In the dark I could feel it, a prickling breeze over my exposed skin. Could see it, wisps and strands of pale gray light. Could smell it, like old parchment and pepper, Leo's personal scent. His magic flowed beneath my skin, pumped through my veins, mingled with my blood, and I sobbed once, only once, my flesh throbbing against his fangs. My heartbeat was a soft thump-thump, thump-thump, growing louder as the blood I'd breathed in and swallowed was carried with his magic through my body, through my heart, and arteries and veins. Changing me. Empowering me. Half a dozen gulps of my blood. Stolen.

Thief of blood, Beast hissed.

Leo's fangs withdrew, the motion slow and cutting like twin razors. I grunted with the pain. Bruiser was still whispering, his lips barely moving air, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Katie took Leo's place, standing over me, staring down, alpha to my zeta. I curled back my lips and growled at her. She chuckled at the sound, her own power flowing over me like cold water, brown and teal and dark green. She held up her arm and I smelled her blood. Three claw marks scored her wrist, blood running down to her fingers and up to her elbow. Beast had drawn blood. I snarled at her. I felt Beast's fangs in my mouth, long and pointed and built for killing, for shredding meat, not for draining the blood of prey.

"You are not human," she said. She licked her own blood, staring down at me as her wrist healed. "We have always known this. Your blood will taste sweet." She knelt and bent over my elbow, rolling my sleeve up, lifting my arm to her mouth, bending it at a painful angle. She bit me.

The pain this time nearly broke me, an electric shock that froze my breath and darkened the edges of my vision. I lay still, my body against the cool cement. She was lying across me, her legs to the side, her weight far heavier than I expected.

Leo's heir took only three deep gulps before withdrawing her fangs. They clicked back into her mouth on the little bone hinges and she slid her tongue along my arm, closing the wounds before she wiped her lips with a finger, licking off a drop of my blood. Bruiser was curled along my side, still whispering his sorrow.

"Now you are mine," Leo said.

"Now I can bind you easily should Leo fall," Katie said. "Our defenses will not be subsumed, nor will they fail should the worst happen. The Vampira Carta is now our defense."

As if they had rehearsed it, they stood and stepped away, leaving Bruiser and me on the floor. Our hips touched, my arm stretched around underneath him. I was gasping, trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my heart. Not succeeding. I pulled my arm from him. The simple movement sent jagged pain through my nerves from my neck to my fingertips. I wiped my tears away. I felt pelt on my cheeks and a misshapen jaw. My hand came away bloody with vamp-blood that had missed my mouth. I sat up, moving with pain. My hair had come down, and it slithered loose around me.

Leo, dressed all in black, was across the room, perched on a stool, one forearm on the bar. A candle burned near his elbow, and a dusty bottle of red wine with a curling, crinkled label sat near. He lifted the bottle and poured the wine into crystal goblets. Katie walked to him. She was wearing champagne-colored silk pants and a flowing vest; the cloth caught the light, glistening. Sabina, the priestess, dressed in her ubiquitous starched white robes, stepped close to them. Leo held out his hand. "George."

Bruiser pulled a leg under him and stood, leaving me there, going to his master, his eyes averted. Cold steel touched my throat from behind, the Mercy Blade's sword, his scent distinctive, and so I stayed on my butt, in submission. The three vamps drank the wine, like a toast or a pledge, as Bruiser stood there, looking away. I tried to slow my heart and find my breath, weight balanced on my hands, the floor cold beneath me.

This is a great gift I have given you, the sharing of my blood and favor, Leo said.

I started to reply when I realized that he hadn't spoken aloud. He was talking into my mind. Well, crap.

He smiled, just a bare curl of lips, his fangs hidden away. Beware when you claim a position of power in my territory, little Enforcer. With power comes both responsibility and cost. And sometimes sacrifice. By your own works and your own choices, you are mine.

Have you used the bones? another voice murmured into my head. I recognized the dulcet, accented tones of Sabina, speaking of the sabertooth lion bones hidden in my garden. I tried to shake my head, tried to lie, but the pain in my throat stopped me. Your enemy will know you by your scent, she thought. I had no idea what she meant.

"What is she?" Katie asked Leo. "She is delicious. I like it."

"Unknown. Something cat, of course, though not were-cat. They stink. She is elegant, like this wine" - he tilted the glass, and I could see the ruby fluid coat the crystal - "rich and earthy and heavy with the tannins of aged oak." I knew that Sabina could have answered Leo's question. Instead, she looked at me over her shoulder, no expression on her face.

I reached up and pushed away the sword at my throat. Gee DiMercy must have considered me no threat now, for he stepped back. Any movement hurt all over, and I thought I might fall, but I pulled myself to my feet, unsteady. Bruiser rushed back and reached out to stabilize me. I growled at him and he stopped as if a puppet master had wrenched his strings. When I spoke, the words were slurred, my cat-mouth not meant for speaking human sounds. "I' no' a vintage," I said, my vocal cords tight and aching, my voice rough with pain and with Beast's nearness. "This was no gift. It was my punishmen' for claiming to be your Enforcer."

"You transgressed," Leo said. "That transgression bent the law and forced us into this war. Now we can rectify the problems you have created and turn the balance of the war in our favor. You will assist us in this endeavor."

I felt the pull of his will, his pressure of his commands, and I said, "I'll fulfill my . . . responsibilities."

Leo's brows went up in surprise. "Of course you will." And I felt his compulsion caress me like a huge hand smoothing my pelt.

"I would have fulfilled them anyway. Without . . . this." My voice broke and I struggled to find my breath. "I'll do my duty. But if you ever t-t-t-try to drink me down again, I'll shhtake you and cut off your head." And eat his heart, Beast added. Leo went still at that, as if he could hear her promise.

I turned and walked to the sliding door and extended my hand. At the end of the palm was a golden-furred paw/finger, human shaped, but bigger, knobbier, with a retractable claw at the tip. My index finger found the button that made the door rise. It whirred up and I walked under it and into the night. It closed behind me. I made it to my bike. Pulled my sleeve down over my aching inner elbow. Straddled Bitsa. On the third try, my fingers folded around the handlebars, mostly human-shaped again. I managed to kick-start her. And I rode away.

Tears flew from my eyes, snaking with the wind across my face, into my hairline. I wasn't wearing my helmet. My loose hair blew out behind me as if the wind ran fingers through it, unbraiding and tangling. I could still feel Leo's fangs at my throat. Katie's against my arm. Still feel my own fangs in my mouth, sharp against my tongue, and knew my jaw and lower face were still misshapen. If a cop stopped me for riding without a helmet, I'd scare the crap outta him.

I sobbed with misery and what might have been despairing laughter. I had been delusional, thinking I could work for vamps and not get bitten, not be forced to drink from them. Delusional and stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

* * *

I dropped the bike on the far side of the Mississippi. Just pulled off the narrow, unmarked road into nowhere, into the brush beside the road, and propped her against a tree. I stripped off my shirt, the stench of vamp and my own blood strong in my nose. So much had happened in the converted warehouse. I had learned so much. And lost so much.

Have you used the bones? Sabina knew what I was. She knew I was a skinwalker.

"What is she?" Katie had asked Leo. He had replied, "Unknown." I hadn't realized it at that time, but he had scented of the truth. So Sabina hadn't told the Master of the City about me. Why not?

I stepped away from the bike into the woods. Briars tore at me. As I walked, I dropped my clothes and boots, leaving them where they fell.

I had clawed Katie. My face had transformed. They knew I was something. Something cat. Leo and Sabina had talked into my brain, something gained from the magic ceremony, the taking of my blood, and force feeding. Compulsion that bound me to Leo. Even here, out of the city, miles away, I could feel him inside me like a ghost crouching in the corner of my brain, like a demon's dark shadow, waiting to command me.

Something splashed my legs, wet and cool. I stopped. I had walked a long way into the woods. Yet I knew where I was, at Beast's hunting grounds, the swampy water where deer and other prey came to drink, where gators slept in the heat and hunted in the night. Something splashed nearby, landing heavily in the water. Mosquitoes buzzed me, biting. Sweat was slick on my body. The water moved slowly, stirred from beneath, the moonlight rippling on the surface. I touched my neck, the tissue swollen and tacky with half-dried blood. Time seemed to bend around me, a languorous pain.

I sobbed into the night, the sound raucous, ripping from me like a scream of torture. I had been . . . dominated. Controlled. Beaten. I wrapped my misshapen hands around my aching throat, the gold necklace I always wore now crusted with my blood, and let the tears fall. Ten minutes, I thought. I'd allow myself to grieve for ten minutes. The tears fell, scalding across my cheeks, through my pelt and dripping onto my hands. I had been prey. Bruiser had betrayed me. Another sob ripped from my injured throat, the sound spreading out over the water, settling into the swampy ground. Ten minutes. Then I'd get on with living.

Beast rose, fast, powerful, and demanded, Shift. Now! Beast is not beaten. Beast is not prey!

I let my half-human-shaped hands fall away from my throat, closed my eyes on the moonlit water. Pain, physical pain swatted me down. I fell forward, toward the water. Cutting, burning, slicing pain. Gray light filled with black motes of energy shot into the darkness. I screamed.

* * *

I leaped onto the shore. Shook swamp water from my pelt. Screamed into the night. I am Beast! This is my land. My territory. I hunt. I am not beaten! In the water, something long and dark moved. Alligators. Worthy prey. But not in water. Would hunt gator someday, on land. I screamed challenge again. Things in swamp sank into deeps and water went still. Moon and stars were caught in water, trapped.

I shook again, flinging stinky water. Walked into the night. Inside mind, I found Jane. She still grieved, her mind curled tight, sleeping like kit. Near her in mind was dark thing, like mist and marshmallows, like shadow and sponge. From the dark thing a chain ran, to curl around Jane's neck. I pushed on dark thing with paw. It moved. It stank of Leo.

I studied it, thinking, thinking like Jane.

This chain was a new thing. It had not been here in mind before, and now it was here. It stretched to Jane like leash. I understood. Dark thing was the creation of alpha vampire, magic of Leo. His ownership was like collar of metal, spikes poking Jane's neck. Was like cage, holding Jane. Dark thing was binding of Leo. I growled. Put claws on binding, testing. Cutting down with sharp claw edges. Binding was not tight. Not strong. Could shift and shift and shift, maybe only five times, and poking collar of binding would be gone. Jane was not human to be bound. Beast was better than Jane alone and better than big-cat alone. Jane should not grieve. Leo hurt her, but did not defeat her. We would still be free.

I walked through woods, night like a gift of hiding. Black panther, black leopard, black big-cats liked night best, but Beast was good hunter by day or night. Could hunt in tall grass under sun, or at night under no moon. I tracked by smell moving on air, going to place Jane needed to see. Following stink of old meat, spoiled long ago under hot summer sky. I sat at edge of killing place, looking, seeing many bones. Many more than five deer had been killed here, stolen from Beast. Winter food, killed by thieves of meat, by pack hunter. Deer bones mostly gone now. Bones scattered. Wolves had taken food in bloodlust. In killing spree. Jane needed to see. To understand.

She stirred, eyes still leaking. Sad for being prey. Sad for Bruiser who was not Bruiser tonight. She did not understand that Bruiser would grieve too. Beast? she called. I huffed. She stared out at night through Beast eyes. Night was sharp with greens and blues and silver tones, everything bright and clear. Bones stood out in grasses and on top of pine needles. Bones? she asked.

Deer bones. Killed by wolves, by pack. Stolen from Beast. Thieves of meat, like in Hunger Times. Pack thinks like strongest, like alpha. Pack thinks like pack. Not like one. Not like two. Like pack.

Jane sighed, breath in mind tired and sad. Not understanding. Yeah, yeah. Got that. Sorry, but . . . I don't get why we came here.

I growled, sound vibrating into night. Beast lost much here. Beast lost winter food. Beast lost meat. Hissed thought, Lost to pack. Tonight Jane lost to pack. Bruiser lost to pack. But Jane is not pack. Bruiser is not pack. Jane is Jane and Bruiser is Bruiser. I batted a rib bone hard with paw. It spun into dark and landed in brush. There is no shame in losing to pack with strong alpha. Shame is from not fighting again when pack is smaller, when pack-alpha is not expecting attack. Only shame is giving up.

Jane made strange sound, air and laughter like bubbles in mind. But when she thought, anger and joy thrummed in words. Like taking a pair of brass knuckles to a half-awake werewolf and knocking his butt into never-never land. Like sitting on a nice tree limb and dropping down on unwary prey. Patience. Yeah. Okay. I can wait to get Leo back for this. Her tears began to dry.

And Bruiser? I thought to Jane. He was prey tonight too, caught in alpha's mind. In Leo's pack. He smelled of grieving, like Jane smelled of grieving. Like Beast smelled of grieving when I killed injured fawn here, fawn left by pack to die slow death. Did not want to kill. Did not. But must. Forced by pack. Like Bruiser.

Jane made sound in mind. Like snort. Like disbelief. Like acceptance too. Yeah, yeah, okay. Bruiser is all innocent. When did you get so wise?

Beast is good hunter. Beast is good mother of kits. Jane is not. Jane said nothing to that. I hunt now. Go to sleep. I put paw on her mind, pushing down, forcing her to rest. I walked into forest.

* * *

I woke up at dawn, naked on a bed of pine needles, which Beast seemed to do to me as often as possible, knowing that needles hurt in places that tender skin should never be exposed to. I always figured it was a joke of sorts, reminding me who was really boss. But at least she had brought me back close to my clothes and my bike and I didn't have to hike barefoot through the woods. I gathered up my undies, jeans, and boots, shook them free of bugs, and dressed. Collected my weapons where they had fallen and stuck them into their various sheaths and holsters. Braided my hair. And thought.

I was feeling calm, steady, clearheaded, seeing the world and my place in it with clarity. Without excess emotion. Envisioning what had happened the night before and my future options as if everything were laid out on a table for my consideration.

Beast was right. Bruiser had little responsibility for what had happened last night. He was blood-drunk and recently risen from the dead, or near dead. He wasn't a vamp, so he was something else, though I had no idea what he was now.

Leo . . . Leo was a master of a city, a powerful vampire, politically and personally. That excused him nothing, but it explained a lot. Like kings and monarchs throughout history, the powerful did bad things to cement and keep their power. Leo believed that his taking of my blood helped him in some way. Weird as it was, Leo really believed that giving me his blood and binding me to him was a gift.

And as for me . . . I didn't know what I was feeling, but I was done with grief. Though I was temporarily bound, it was an imperfect binding. I had options Leo didn't know about. I could get on Bitsa and take off and never come back. I could claim my freedom. Or I could stay and put to rights what I had made wrong by killing Ramondo Pitri, even though that death was purely self-defense. I could maybe even save Bruiser from whatever fate now awaited him. I could still do my job. If I wanted. If I could face Leo without killing him.

I let that thought settle. I could leave. Or I could stay. I twirled the tip of my braid and tied it off with a thread ripped from the inside of my pocket.

I'd been hurt, but I wasn't beaten. I could still work, could still be there for the friends I had in this city. I smiled slowly. I could get Leo back for the forced feeding and binding later.

Which led me to Leo's own gang-feeding. A forced or coerced feeding from a human was a vamp's version of takeout, though from the victim's point of view it was an assault. It took away a person's will and rights and it hurt. It hurt bad. What was it like when a powerful vamp was drained? What had Leo's forced feeding been like, and how had it changed him? And how much of my internal debate was the binding? How much of my willingness to stay was Leo's draw on my soul?

Holding my hair in one hand, I touched my throat, feeling again the slice of fangs going in. The electric shock as they sliced through me. I should want to kill Leo, tear him limb from limb, but I didn't. I didn't know what I was going to do about it. Not yet.

I rode at a leisurely pace, the sun rising gray and brown through a haze of pollution. My clothes were bloody, and if I got stopped I'd have a lot of explaining to do, but I needed some time to assimilate everything that had happened, everything I had learned. Hunger twisted my insides, the hunger of the shift that needed calories for fuel. But I didn't stop for food. I needed to be fasting. I took the roads, heading for Aggie One Feather's, the one place I might find a measure of peace.

Aggie was standing in the yard when I rode up, Bitsa puttering along with that signature Harley roar. The elder of The People was wearing jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and gardening gloves, holding a pair of clippers in one hand and a dozen sprigs of rosemary in the other. A basket lay at her feet, full of fall herbs, heated by the warm, late fall air. Fall, assuming there is such a thing here, lasts a long time in the Deep South. There would likely have been a frosting of snow in the mountains of home already. Tree limbs would be bare. Here it was still warm, even at dawn, and half the trees were still bright with fall color.

I parked in the shell drive, turned off the growling bike, and unhelmeted. As Aggie watched, I began removing my weapons, stashing them in Bitsa's bags. Guns, blades, stakes. The cross in the lead-lined pouch. Everything. Nothing that might be considered a weapon could be brought into an elder's house. I filled up one saddlebag and started on the other.

Paper crinkled in the bottom and I dug out a white paper bag. I had bought Aggie and her mother gifts while I was in the mountains, and left them in the bag in my bike. I closed the lid of the saddlebag, feeling the witchy-lock tingle under my fingertips as it activated. A thief would get a nasty shock if he tried to steal Bitsa. Carrying the small white paper bag, I crunched across the shells, my boots falling silent on the grass. I smiled down at Aggie, her face unlined, her black hair pushed back behind her ears. She had cut it into a pageboy that just brushed her shoulders, and it glistened like liquid onyx in the sun.

Aggie wasn't surprised to see me. But then, little really surprises Aggie. She's like a leaf on the surface of a stream, floating along in the eddies, sliding across rapids, untouched by it all, and serene. "I have no idea what that kind of serenity might feel like, Lisi." It wasn't what I had planned to come out of my mouth, and I rattled the bag to take attention away from my words. "I come bearing gifts."

"You are covered in dried blood. Are you injured?" she asked.

I touched my shirt, crusted through with blood. "No. Not mine. And no one else is hurt either." At her disbelieving expression, I added, "Some vamps tried to bite me last night." Which was true. I just didn't add the part about them being successful.

"Are they dead?" she asked.

"Not any more than they were before they tried."

Aggie's mouth twisted into what might be the start of a smile or a grimace, and tilted her head in acceptance. "Come inside. My mother asked to see you this morning when she woke."

"Uh. Sure." But Aggie's mother scared me witless. Uni Lisi, grandmother of many children, a term of respect, was an old woman who saw too much sometimes. I followed Aggie into the house, feeling like a lumbering giant next to her petite grace. "Wait here," she said, pointing to the living room. Inside, the windows were thrown open and bees bounced at the screens. The small living room was spotless, floral fabric on the sofa and chair, a brown recliner, a new wide-screen TV, a rug I hadn't seen before on the floor, and on a side table, a bowl of potpourri flavored the air with dried herbs and synthetic scent. A feral hiss brought me up short. A huge tabby cat lay curled on the cushions of a well-used old rocker. She stared at me with wide green eyes. I stared back, Beast rising inside. The cat drew her paws beneath her, the body language saying she was ready to run or fight. Her hair bristled and she showed me her teeth. Cats don't like me. Never have.

I dropped my eyes, though Beast pressed her claws into me, painfully. She didn't like showing submission to anyone, but this was the tabby's den, the cat a new addition since the last time I'd been inside the house. I smelled her now, over the potpourri. I didn't enter the room, but stood at the entrance, eyes down. The cat settled slightly, uneasy, and kept her eyes on me.

Aggie stuck her head in from the kitchen. "I see you met the queen. She showed up here a few weeks ago and moved in. Sweetest cat I ever saw. 'Til now."

"Cats don't like me," I said.

Aggie looked at me strangely. "Queenie likes everyone. Even the dogs." I grunted as Queenie showed me her teeth again. Aggie's brows went up at the threat from the house cat. "Hmm. My mother is out back on the porch. Come."

I trailed Aggie, and Queenie dropped heavily to the floor, following us through the house with regal disdain. Her scent came strongly then, heavy with hormones and faintly with blood. I said, "You know she's pregnant, right?"

Aggie turned back and stared at the cat. "Well, darn. I knew she was getting fat."

"She's due soon." Like today, but I didn't say that. Queenie was already in early labor, but since I had no way of knowing that, except my extra-good nose, I didn't say that either.

Aggie made a long-suffering sound, half sigh, half snort, something I remembered from The People, the Tsalagiyi, a sound that was pure Cherokee, and I smiled, relaxing at the familiar noise. On the back porch Uni Lisi was sitting on a deeply upholstered chair, a bowl of bean pods on the table in front of her, shelling them fast, her knobby hands flying through the beans, pinching off the ends and stripping the string down the side of the pods, exposing the plump beans inside, tossing them into a bowl, and dropping the empty shells on the table. It seemed like a lot of work when they could buy beans in a can, but I didn't say that either. She paused in her shelling and gestured me to the table. "Come. Come, Jane. Sit." I sat across from her, my little paper bag on my lap.

Aggie placed a glass of sweating tea in front of her mother, a single mint leaf in the bottom; two identical glasses went to the side. One was clearly mine. "Jane says Queenie is going to give us kittens soon."

"Oh?" Uni Lisi leaned over and studied the cat. "We have to get her a basket and a blanket. That big pink one in the corner of my room. Make her a place on the porch so she doesn't take the babies off. Good to see you, Jane. Go get the basket, Aggie." Uni Lisi drank her tea and smacked her lips. I had never heard the old woman so chatty. "Drink," she commanded. At her gesture I drank too, the tea so sweet it coated the inside of my mouth, good Southern tea, one-third sugar, the rest tea so dark it looked like bayou water. It was delicious. I tried to think of something to say, as the old woman went back to shelling beans. "We gonna have some kittens," the old woman said, as if I didn't already know. "You want a kitten?"

"Um, thank you, no," I said, with my best Christian children's home manners.

Aggie carried the pink basket back onto the porch. It was really pink - flamingo - with a pink bow on top. The basket was about three feet wide, with a huge hoop handle, the biggest basket I had ever seen, and Aggie placed it at Uni Lisi's feet. The blanket Aggie set inside was fleece, yellow with red and green polka dots all over it, a color combo that was . . . interesting at best. Queenie walked past, her tail high, and hissed at me, warning me to stay away. She leaped gracefully into the basket and began pawing the blanket into submission, ignoring me totally now. Aggie sat beside me and drank her tea, sighing once as she eyed the cat. "Kittens," she murmured with disgust.

"I brought you gifts," I said. I tilted up the paper bag, and two small foil-wrapped packages fell into my hand, each one tied with hemp string. I placed the silver foil - wrapped one in front of Aggie, and the gold foil - wrapped one in front of Uni Lisi. The old woman clapped her hands together like a child and began tearing at the paper. Aggie took hers and untied the string. They both got them open at the same time. Both women made little oohing and aahing sounds as they lifted their necklaces to the light.

"I'd have brought them to you on my last visit, but I didn't come inside."

Uni Lisi swatted her daughter's hand. "You should have brought her inside. She had presents." Aggie looked at me under her brows and I stifled a grin.

"The amethyst came from a small mine near the Nantahala River," I said, "on Cherokee land. A Cherokee silver artist named Daniel Running Bear did the silver work. Daniel Yonv Adisi. I found the silver chains online and they probably came from China. They should be long enough to just put over your head," I finished. I had planned that part carefully, remembering the older woman's knobby hands, but if I had seen her shelling beans, I'd have just bought her a short chain and let her use the clasp.

Aggie and her mother draped their necklaces over their heads in gestures that looked choreographed, the twin actions of people who had lived together for many years. Aggie looked at me with a smile, the first one I had seen on her face today. "They are beautiful. Thank you, Dalonige i Digadoli."

"Oh yes. This is pretty. Pretty, pretty!" Uni Lisi patted her amethyst between her shrunken breasts. "I like purple."

I nodded formally to each of them. "You are welcome, Egini Agayvlge i, Uni Lisi."

"Mama, you wanted to tell Jane about your dream."

"Yes." The old woman nodded, her hands busy once again with the beans. "I have many dreams as I get older. Some are nothing. Some are something. This one was something." A prickling ran up the back of my neck, as if cobwebs trailed across me. I placed the tea glass on the table, my hands curled around it, wet with condensation, cold from the ice. Uni Lisi drank again, her lips making that smacking sound when she was done. She reached down and stroked the cat, feeling along her belly. Queenie rolled over and let the old woman feel of her stomach. "Fat kittens. I count four. Maybe more." She looked at me again. "You sure you don't want a kitten?"

I shook my head, waiting on the dream. The dreams of the elders were important, not to be ignored.

"This dream was strange, even for me. It was about a man hanging over a fire."

I stilled, slowly dropping my hands into my lap, my tea glass forgotten. "A white man?"

She nodded, returning to the beans. "Dirty. Naked. He had a beard, like he needed to shave. His mustache was longer, like he had it first. Brown hair. Brown hands. He was dead. He had been cooked over a slow fire for many hours." She looked at me from under her brows. "This was not the way of Tsalagiyi. Not the way of The People. This was the way of the Mohicans, maybe. Or the Creek. Savages. Not Tsalagiyi." She nodded once, firmly, her hands flying through the beans. "Not Tsalagiyi."

If I thought it was strange for a member of one tribe to call another tribe savages, I didn't show it. I kept still, waiting on the rest of the dream. Uni Lisi drank again, smacked again, and said, "There was an old woman standing beside the fire. She was wearing a long dress, blue or gray, and her hair was in braids down her back. She was holding a stick, the end sharpened and black from the fire. She poked the body and it didn't bleed." She pointed one knobby finger at me, her black eyes throwing back the light, like faceted stones. "When Aggie takes you to sweat, you will think on this." She looked at her daughter. "Take her now. I'll finish the beans and take a nap on the couch with Queenie. We gonna have us some kittens tonight, I think. Go, go." She shooed us with her hands.

I stood, my knees feeling weak at the vision Uni Lisi had seen. Aggie made the sighing-snorting sound again and said, "Go to the sweathouse. I'll be there shortly."

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