Nikolai, one of the Hunters, is trying not to worry about the injured Arthur. Then his Hunting Partner calls . . . [Contains spoiler for Preternaturally Familiar]
“How was the concert?” Lerae asked once they’d both finished.
He nodded. “It went well. I don’t think Meistro Fowler is going to program that many major works together again. We went until ten-thirty both nights, even trimming some of the usual announcements.”
She winced. “No. So you got home around eleven-fifteen?”
“One. A Hunt in Riverside park delayed me.” Should he speak of the Hunter born? Yes, she needed to know. “We were ambushed, and the Hunter born was gravely injured.” He looked at the empty plate before him. “I called him to aid, should he be close, since Florian is at his father’s farm. I did not know that the Hunter born had set aside his blade. He was unarmed save for his boot-knife when two abyssal creatures jumped him. One bit him, may have clipped the femoral artery.” She’d know exactly what that meant.
Lerae’s eyes went wide, and she covered her mouth with her hand. “Lady of Night have mercy.”
“Amen. I—” His breath caught, and he forced feeling aside once more. “I did not know. He Hunted unarmed, and then ordered me to cleanse the three beasts instead of aiding him. I should have seen that he carried no weapons, but I was too intent on the Hunt. His blood is on my hands.”
He heard her chair scrape back, and she embraced his shoulders. She offered no words of false comfort, thanks be. He took one of her hands and kissed it. “Thank you.” She released him and took his plate to the sink along with hers. He stood, brushed his teeth, and then went out to check on the plants and see if the storm had made more of a mess than usual. The neighbor’s tree preferred to dump hail-tattered leaves and small branches into their yard, not the proper one. Niko had asked Mistress Talyssa to check, and she’d seen no spells or signs that the Elementals were harassing him more than usual. He shrugged once again and cleaned the front yard. The back could wait. He needed to finish that poster design, and he’d not gotten any work done on it Friday or yesterday.
His phone rang just before five that evening. He blinked screen-tired eyes and answered it. It was his Hunting partner, Florian Bauer. Niko stared out the small window by his computer set-up, letting his eyes rest. “Anno. How are you?”
“Tired of finding leaks in my father’s barn. And sheds. And henhouse.” Florian snorted. “Rebuilding the buildings would be easier.”
Niko snorted in turn. “Has Marius’ barn leaned any farther?”
“I’m not asking.” The other Hunter paused. “The Hunter born.”
“Has he—?” The words came as a whisper.
An endless-seeming silence, then, “Not yet. But Cimbrissa and the others fear that he will. The bite was both poison and unclean. Already signs of infection have begun, and he runs a high fever.” Florian took a long breath. “The blood from the beast that bit him has been saved for his feast.”
Nikolai closed his eyes. “His blood is on me. I called him to aid, and did not ask why he carried neither long-blade nor shotgun.”
“Ach, Scheisse,” came the hiss. “What saw you?”
The memories came easily, as clear as if he lived them again. He recited the tale, ending with “Ladislu told me to come home, not to go to the home farm.”
A long indrawn breath, as if the next sound would be one of the oh-so-legato Lady chants from worship. “Ladislu was wise. The senior Hunter— I lack words. Constanche said that he went rigid, all color fading as he saw the Hunter born, eyes dilating. His wife and sister guided him away, and the priestess joined them. About what they spoke Constanche did not say.”
No, he would not know. “Truth, brother, I dread attending worship.”
“I will stand with you,” came the assurance, as fast as thought. “You could not know if the Hunter born spoke not of setting aside his blade.” He heard papers shifting, then the soft thud of something falling to the floor. “I’m at work, finishing inventory early. Tomorrow, some of us will gather to ask the Lady’s grace on those who need it. Eleven, full dark.”
“I will be there. Thank you. How bad is the new software?”
“Recall my complaint that I thought FarmFile hated me? It treated me with great consideration and love compared to this ill-begotten excuse for a database. My sister-by-marriage wonders if it was designed by an abyssal being condemned to work as a coder for some terrible sin.” A hint of laughter shaded Florian’s morose words. “I find many reasons to agree with her suspicion.”
Niko had to smile despite everything. “Would you like to trade and merge graphics files into ArtAdPro 3.0? It is supposed to have been beta-tested. They lied.”
A retching, moaning sort of sound came over the phone, and Niko bared his teeth with unholy glee. “Ah, no, thank you. What little remains of my sanity begs to be excused, and my father swore on his blade that his sons would not touch graphics lay-out programs. At least, I hope he did.”
Roasting meat scent wafted into the room. Nikolai sniffed and stood. “I believe that my lady wife desires my presence at the supper table.”
“Save me a plate, please, if there’s enough. Father wants me to come into Riverton to collect the checks from the rent box.”
Nikolai rolled his eyes, then his head and neck and stretched his shoulders. “I will try. Do you want the creamed spinach or the—”
“Stop, you vicious bastard. May your firstborn play nothing save the Beatles and Top-Forty love ballads.” No true anger colored Florian’s words.
Niko made a rude gesture in the general direction of Florian’s place of employment. “I’ll take that as a vote for the mashed turnips. Defender be with you.”
Niko slid his phone into the charger, backed everything up yet again, then went to the kitchen. Lerae smiled. “Just in time. The meat needs to be sliced.”
He smiled in turn, then kissed her on the cheek as she stirred vegetables. “Florian will be in town this evening. He asked for a plate, to assuage his misery at doing inventory with new software. Even his sister-by-marriage says it’s junk.”
“And you said?”
“I asked if he wished to trade tasks with me, then offered him creamed spinach or mashed turnips.” Florian couldn’t eat dark leafy greens without becoming ill, and detested “mushed food” as he put it.
Lerae gave him a tired look as he studied the roast, then found the proper knife and a sturdy meat fork. “He needs a wife,” she observed yet again, then added a sprinkle of a spice blend to the peas and sweet corn. “Odile says that Annatina has been trying to catch his eye, but he has been as blind thus far.”
The meat shifted, and Nikolai turned his full attention to cutting the meat without causing a terrible mess or slicing himself. Only when he’d carved half the roast did he say, “I do not believe that he will notice her. Marius spoke once of a private vow made by his twin, but it was not my business.”
“No.” She nodded firmly, then stirred the green and yellow mixture once more before turning off the fire. “Will you be playing for the patriotic concert this year?”
He set two slices of meat onto a plate. “Not unless Ari has a problem between now and the third. And then only if they ask very nicely. It’s Beatles-heavy.” He did not care for that body of work, any of it, no matter how well arranged.
“I understand. Dr. McWhorter has invited those of us not working that evening or night to his home that evening to watch the down-stream fireworks. Spouses are welcome.” She added vegetables to the plate, then carried it to the table. A basket of bread already waited, along with a cold potato salad that she’d made on Friday.
He thought about it as he washed the knife and put it back in the holder. “I’ll know after tomorrow night. There’s a special gathering.”
Bless her, she caught his meaning without needing more. “We don’t have to confirm until Thursday.”
Florian knocked, then opened the door a little before nine that night. “Greetings and the Great God’s blessing be on the house,” he called as he came in.
“Be welcome in the name of the Great God and His Lady,” Lerae replied. She’d been the one to suggest granting Florian both hearth and pot right, just as Nikolai still had with Florian’s brother and parents.
“My thanks for the welcome,” Florian replied. He handed her a large plastic bag full of buns and cookies. “Mother has been trying some of Sharrie’s family recipes. Not the ones that begin with ‘boil until dead’,” he assured her.
She chuckled. “I’d be more worried about the food turning invisible on my plate.” They used simple white dishes most of the time. “Cauliflower, mashed potatoes, and baked chicken in white sauce do not appeal.”
“You forgot the half-dissolved jiggly fish, and I agree, as does Sharrie. Marius is slowly converting her to using something besides two grains of ground pepper and one flake of thyme in the entire batch of tomato sauce.” Marius’ wife’s preference for bland food had become something of a family joke, one she took in good grace and even agreed with at times.
Lerae disappeared into the kitchen. The sound of dishes and food wrap soon followed. The Hunters looked at each other. At last Florian leaned forward and gripped Nikolai’s shoulder. “No change,” he said, voice low. “That might be good, or at least less bad.”
“Thank you. Has anyone spoke of how the creatures reached the park?”
“Not yet.” Florian lowered his hand and glanced toward the door, then met his eyes again. “Nor why the beasts were there. Have you heard of any covens working that night?”
Nikolai thought hard, trying to recall. “No, that is, Midsummer yes, but not so soon after. Perhaps the solo warlock of Garridon’s acquaintance, or one of the sorcery workers? They do share space with the covens.”
“Hmm.” Florian looked thoughtful. “There’s another sorcerer known to Art who might be sufficiently strong to attract such attention. I know not if he shares space.”
Both Hunters shrugged. “I would rather herd cats than keep track of magic workers,” Niko said. “No, I’d rather herd musicians past a free buffet than deal with magic workers.”
Knowing chuckles greeted his words. Lerae appeared in his peripheral vision. She carried an almost overloaded plate of meat, vegetables, and pasta salad. “Here.” She winked at Florian. “I needed to clean out the salads in the back of the fridge.”
Florian drooped with the drama of a swooning melodrama maiden, then straightened up and inclined toward Lerae. “Thank you, oh wonderful paragon of womanhood and generosity. You are a model of hospitality and decorum, despite having chosen a musician as mate.” Florian studied the heaped platter. “Oh, roast? I love you.” He made calf-eyes at Lerae. She made a kissy-face back at him as her husband rolled his eyes.
“Ahem!” Niko mock glowered at both of them.
“In a brotherly fashion, I assure you.” Florian sobered. “For the meal and shelter, my thanks. May the Great God bless this place both graciously and well.”
“May the Lady and Her Defender be with you this night and in the nights to come,” Niko replied. Lerae patted Florian on the shoulder, then got the door for him, since his hands were full. Once she closed the door, Nikolai asked, “Will the meat make it to his car?”
She giggled. “Probably not.” She put one arm around his waist. “News?”
He hung his head. “The Hunter born is likely dying. The bite carried both venom and germs, and he lost a great deal of blood.”
Lerae held him close, providing all the comfort she could. Her tears dampened his shoulder. It helped.
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