In order to watch each other’s backs, Locos and Machine sat on opposite sides of the small aluminum table in the middle of the main room of the bunker. No familial decorations adorned the gun metal grey walls. Behind Machine was a double bunk bed with each bunk attached by thick hinges riveted into the wall; the opposite ends were secured in place by two steel chains looped onto giant welded hooks that jutted out of the ceiling. The bunks were apparently made to rest flush against the wall when not in use. If the top bunk was put up, the bottom could be used as a couch or daybed.
Every time Carmel reached across the table, Machine caught delicious whiffs of her light vanilla perfume as it mingled with the buttered honey nut bread. He watched Praline sashay around the kitchenette behind Locos. Out of one of the cabinets, she took mugs into which she poured shots of spiced rum while waiting for the coffee to percolate.
The awkward silence was broken when Praline turned to the table, “I assume everyone wants coffee?”
“Yes’m,” Locos answered.
“Oh, so proper,” Carmel quipped. Under the table she brushed her hand against Machine’s thigh, “are you proper too?”
The private blushed as her energy surged up his leg, “only when I have to be.”
Carmel giggled, “well, that’s good to know. I hate those stuck up guys who can’t relax around women.”
“Carmel,” Praline chastised her friend, “we just met. Perhaps, they’ll chill out after they get to know us.” She leaned over Locos, her breasts resting on his shoulder, to place a mug of steaming coffee in front of him, “am I right?”
“I’m relaxed,” Locos responded dryly.
“I can tell,” Praline laughed. Once she’d set down the rest of the mugs, she pulled out the chair next to Locos. “Carmel and I usually play cards after we’ve eaten. Do you gents, play cards?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Good,” Carmel chimed. “Ever play strip poker?” she asked, a wicked gleam in her eyes.
“I only play poker for money,” Machine said quite seriously.
“Dick, shut up” Locos spit, before saying, “ladies, we play strip poker. If the stakes are high enough.”
Excitedly, Praline asked, “what do you have in mind?”
“Information,” Locos replied.
“Boo!” Carmel cried, “that’s no fun.”
“You get information. What do we get?” Praline asked.
“What do you want?” Locos asked.
Praline whispered something in Locos’ ear. The man turned beat red for an instant, then smiled. He took a deep breath and said, “you’ve got a deal. But, only if we play hand to hand. We win one, you give us information and lose a garment. You win, we follow your exact command plus lose a garment.”
“Max?” Machine looked concerned.
“Praline, you’ve negotiated us sex slaves?” Carmel exhaled. She placed her hand on Machine’s thigh and whispered in his ear, “I promise I’ll be gentle.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Locos said through gritted teeth. Although he had to put on a show for Machine, Max Locos wished he’d met these two women topside when he wasn’t on duty.
“I would,” Praline countered.
The two men picked up their mugs, looked at each other for a moment, and then took big swigs. Locos rolled his shoulders, popped his neck, and said, “I assume you have cards?”
Until seeing a griffin pace in his living room, Patrick Field had lived under the impression that his was a decent sized dwelling. When he walked through his front door, he found Cassie cleaning what appeared to be a mostly digested sandwich. She and the griffin were squawking and whistling at one another. As Patrick watched in awe, the realization hit him: a griffin king and the messenger were in his living room speaking the language of the birds. Somehow his relatively simple life of tending the Gryphon Gardens had become infinitely complex. He shuddered when he thought about what the head groundskeeper, Jared Silvan, might say upon learning that two of the most important people in all of Poterit Don had stayed in his home. For a few seconds Patrick closed his eyes, listening to the click-clack of Archel’s nails on his floor and the swishing of the towel as Cassie finished cleaning. Then, before he could change his mind or run screaming, Patrick Field fell to his knees, bowed his head, and waited.
Though Archel and Cassie were discussing what she’d seen, neither was looking up. Cassie was intently focused on the floor just beyond where she’d hurled, trying desperately not to do it again. Archel, though his eyes were open, was reliving past visits with the Kaiser and the Phoenix Rose. All the lessons, the conversations, were on instant replay as Archel searched for nuances and hidden meanings. Cassie realized they weren’t alone when she got up to return the trashcan and cleaning supplies to the kitchen.
To Archel, she said in the bird language, “he’s returned.”
Archel spun around, his tail knocked a picture off the wall, causing him to spin back around in reflex. He reached for the picture, but couldn’t figure out how to pick it up. For the first time in his life, he recognized the wonder of opposable thumbs. He sighed and determined to deal with it when he’d changed back into his human form.
“What are you doing?” Archel asked, his tone tinged with desperation. “This is your house. Please get up, Mr. Field.” He didn’t realize he was speaking another language.
“He’s waiting for your hand,” Cassie said from the kitchen threshold.
“What hand?” Archel hissed.
Patrick Field breathed in and out of his nose, trying to steady himself and to keep from panicking. He’d never been so nervous. Not even on the day he and Janice had sworn vows. Janice, he exhaled sharply, oh, woman, would that you had lived to see this day. A tear threatened to fall from his eyes. He fought the urge to wipe it away as custom dictated he was not to move until he’d received the hand of his new liege. New liege, Patrick shook his head, he’s just an abused servant boy. How can he lead us? The groundskeeper recalled the many times he’d seen Archel in the rock gardens hiding from the Chief Justice.
“Mr. Field,” Cassie began, “sir? You have to get up. Archel, I mean, Kaiser Archel can’t give you his hand. He…well, he doesn’t have one right now.”
The moment Cassie spoke regularly, a linguistic switch flipped in Archel’s mind. He suddenly knew Patrick Field had not understood because he wasn’t capable of speaking the language of the birds. With that realization a rock plummeted into the pit of the boy’s stomach, he knew without doubt that he was not experiencing some nightmare. He was a griffin, and therefore heir to the throne of Kaiser Rudolpho Imler. Archel crossed the living room in two strides and reached out his right paw, taking great effort to keep his claws from extending. The boy king rested his giant lion’s paw on Patrick Field’s shoulder, “please, Mr. Field. Stand up in your own home.”
To Patrick’s surprise, the paw was warm and though it was heavy, he didn’t feel nearly as threatened as he feared he would. The groundskeeper looked up in shock and said, “I can understand you.”
“Yeah,” Archel nodded, or rather, jerked his great eagle head up and down. What else could he say? It’s not like he knew anything about being a griffin. When were those lessons going to start? He wondered.
“What happened when you told Lieutenant Santos about…about the Kaiser?” Cassie asked, bile rising up in the back of her throat as she fought back her last image of the Kaiser.
“He took off at a run. Bard Fintan and some young fellow came to the Phoenix Rose. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Patrick paused, chewing on his lip for a moment, then added, “she just—just flew into him. One minute he was asking questions and the next he was convulsing like he’d touched the hot end of wire. After that, she flew out of him and he collapsed. A few minutes later he had the other fellow help him up, saying something about getting to the Heart of the Seven Faeries.”
Archel looked over his furry shoulder at Cassie, “should we go?”
“No,” Patrick answered, then instantly regretted it. What right did he have to tell a griffin king what to do? Regardless, he found himself apologetically adding, “it isn’t safe. Santos knows you’re both here. Wait until he comes back.”
Kent circled the Heart of the Seven Faeries, looking at each of the statues in all their military might. Each of the faeries had grim expressions. The muscles on their extended right arms were intricately sculpted, as were their weapon arms which held blades that still looked sharp, although the whole fountain was obviously ancient. Between the giant human heart and the militarized faeries, Kent shuddered, the whole fountain was a tribute to creepy. Just as he contemplated ignoring the order to stay, Fintan, Santos, and the other Mercs emerged from the fountain. Kent rushed toward them and overheard Santos.
“Nothing doing. If we can’t find the Kaiser, what am I supposed to tell Colonel Dagon?”
“Tell him the truth. Tell him what you know,” Fintan urged.
“I don’t know anything except that the Kaiser is missing. Two people tell me he’s dead. I can’t tell the Colonel that. There’s too much at stake,” Santos bowed his head. Turning to the nearest Merc, he said, “gather the men. We’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, sir!” the tall blonde Merc jumped to attention, before he started waving the other soldiers over.
“I told you what the Phoenix showed me. And, you heard her. I know you did because you came running. She wouldn’t scream like that if nothing was wrong,” Fintan said.
Santos stared at the ground. His last orders had been so simple, place a guard on the Phoenix Rose, find the boy and the gardener, then meet the Kaiser the next day. Colonel Dagon was going to kill him for letting the Kaiser go off without an escort. What the hell had he been thinking? They had to find the Kaiser, whether dead or alive. If the Kaiser really was dead, they’d need the body to prove it. But, if the Kaiser was alive, then they needed to find him before something else happened. When he was surrounded by Mercs, Santos stood straight, looked each in the eye, and against his better judgment explained the situation. The Mercs stared at Santos and eyeballed each other as the lieutenant broke military protocol.
Finished with the grueling part, Santos was about to order his men to search different areas of the Templus de Ambros, when the bards simultaneously wavered and reached out their hands for support. Two of the Mercs automatically took the outstretched hands and held on while they bobbed and weaved. The younger man retched. Fintan closed his good eye. After what seemed like ages, the elder bard lifted his head, “follow me. I’ve just seen where the Kaiser has been hidden.”
“What?” Santos asked. He always forgot that the bards were linked to falcons. It was one of those little legends that everyone thought was part of the Bard’s mystique, but that no one really believed. Like a changeling king and a teleporting messenger, Santos thought warily.
“Sentinel Cemetery,” Kent said. “That’s where they took Kaiser Imler. If we hurry we might even catch them before they finish burying him.” The young bard peeked at his father who couldn’t help but smile a little.