“Oh, sweet Mercury! What did you put in it, piss?” Brimley complained.
“Yes. That’s the secret to warming it up. I piss in it,” Santos retorted.
“Oh, now I don’t want it,” Brimley held the coffee cup away from her while looking for a place to put it down.
“Here. Let me,” Santos offered.
She mock handed him the cup, which he genuinely took, eliciting her to whine, “hey, give that back.”
In the living room, Cassie whispered, “it doesn’t make sense,” to Archel who kept one enormous eagle eye on the bickering soldiers. “Do people never grow up?”
“Chess,” Archel murmured. In stifling a yawn, all the feathers on his head and neck went ridged. “Game,” he exhaled. “Ooh,” he moaned, “I dreamed I was…” His beak fell and his lion’s shoulders slumped.
“Excellent,” Santos said from the kitchen, “you’re both awake. We made coffee.” Brimley appeared holding a tray with three coffee cups. Santos followed her, carrying a wide mouthed pot. “Uh, I don’t really know of a better way, sir,” Santos apologized while setting the pot on the couch next to Archel.
Groaning, Archel bent his head into the fresh coffee steam. It smelled burnt. Even with sugar and milk, it’d still taste burnt. Every day. Three in the morning with breakfast to appease Chief Justice Fraunx Adonis’s appetite. He stuck his tongue into the pot and began lapping unceremoniously. Between his satisfied slurps he heard the delighted mmm’s and ohm’s of his fellow drinkers. The quartet drank their coffee without conversation.
As Santos collected the dishes, Brimley rehashed Celatrix Verna’s orders. She emphasized keeping to the clock, eyeballing Santos as if he were personally responsible for every time anyone was late. To which Santos tapped his watch and motioned toward the door. Though Brimley was closest to the door she made no effort to open it. She ran for the couch where Archel’s entangled paws threatened to topple him onto Cassie who was losing the battle to gravity’s stronger forces.
“Heavier than you look, sir,” Brimley huffed. “No offense.”
He squawked in her face, causing Brimley to jump backwards as Cassie tried not to fall and Santos laughed.
Following the reverberations of a human made rolling thunder, Clara Darin snuck through Sentinel Cemetery, hiding behind tombs, trees, mausoleums. She carefully avoided the well-lit main paths, slowly navigating the shadows. Arriving behind a public mausoleum, she kept a view across the empty field, a single building in sight. The funeral home loomed over the nearby cherry trees, the concrete walk was lined on both sides by white-clad chanters who disappeared deeper into the cemetery. And, a lone Merc paced the better part of the circumference, stopping at the double line of chanters, about-facing and continuing back.
She leaned forward straining to hear the words. The hair on her arms rising as the chant’s crescendo’d line struck home, “Astra declive. Sed, sol oriens!” Clara Darin held tightly to the edge of the mausoleum, a son, she leaned her head against the concrete. Always three. The stories always have them together. Messenger, Bard, and Gryphon. Clamping her lips together, she maintained her hold on the mausoleum and began working on the best route for escape. Just back away, she thought, back the way you came. Tonight is not the night for one last midnight stroll. She scoffed, if not tonight, when? Tonight, she sighed, brushing rainwater from her eyes.
Ducking down, she darted behind a series of shrubs that lined the path from the public mausoleum to the well-lit main path that wound throughout the cemetery. She kept hidden and slowly navigated through the sea of tombstones, until she found herself pinched by the stone wall on her left and the double line of chanters on her right. The line disappeared through a hole in the wall. Curiosity dragged her to the wall, where she managed to scale enough of it to peer over. She wasn’t surprised to see the line of chanters weave itself to a point in the distance. The smart thing would be to leave out the opposite exit. To walk south, catch a shuttle, and see where it went. She slid down from the wall, leaned her back to it, and clutched to her chest the bag she’d received from the Inquisitor. Her whole world in exchange for the contents of that bag, she squeezed it tighter. What if I just walk in…I could… she coughed into her hand and fought back tears, ...you could what? Die? That’s what’ll happen if you try it. She yanked the bag down, used the palm of her free hand to wipe away her tears in the rain.
She stood braced against the wall, shivering and soaked, fighting with herself when she plainly saw three people and a griffin enter the path approaching the chanters leading out of the front entrance of the funeral home. The griffin entered the lamp light and the chanting fell into a collective, “oooh,” which suddenly rose into cheering, “oriens!” as the chorus picked up again. The sight of the griffin drove her further into the wall. She froze, what have I done? Her flesh rippled as sweat formed on her palms, around her lips and eyes, and a wave of nausea rode her chin to her feet.
Colonel Thompson grabbed General Michaels hand and squeezed, exclaiming, “Mars!” Years melted from her face as she leapt up and dragged Marshal with her. For his part, Marshal balanced on his good foot. The funeral parlor bustled with movement as white robed ministers led a griffin into the foyer. Patrick Field and Colonel Dagon stood to the side, neither outwardly impressed, though both were, in fact, impressed. The mortuary door opened suddenly, Celatrix Verna stepped through and immediately fell to her knees. The reaction was instantaneous as the ministers fell like dominos.
Letting out a screech that cracked glass, Archel stomped one of his lion’s paws, and bobbed his head up and down. Cassie stepped forward, whispered something to the Celatrix who immediately rose spawning the rise of the line of ministers. Archel screeched again and Cassie once again translated.
From the parlor, Thompson leaned into Michaels and muttered, “I wonder if he’ll be cranky like his dad.” She took a deep breath, holding it and the memory it rode in on.
Michaels shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t remember Kaiser Rudolpho being cranky. Cranky?” He looked at her with his face scrunched and his head tilted.
“Oh, Mars, he was cranky. Right before a meal…” she shook her head, “terrible.”
Before he could respond, Celatrix Verna called out, “hear me!” She clapped her hands twice and called again, “hear me!” After a moment, she announced, “no ceremony requires more precision than the death rites of a fallen king and the ascension of an heir.” Raising her left hand over Archel’s shoulders, Celatrix Verna said, “any who doubt this heir, step forth. Speak your mind.” She waited, a customary pause, before continuing, “I do not contest this heir.” She bowed to Archel, “wait here, Lord Gryphon,” nodding to the nearest ministers, Celatrix Verna exited through the mortuary door. When she returned, she was followed by minister pall bearers who deliberately walked the topless casket into the parlor. Celatrix Verna led the solemn procession, took the pulpit, and waited as the casket was settled into place. She waited as the two retired soldiers each took a moment, while Patrick Field shuffled by uncomfortably, and a dozen ministers bid Kaiser Rudolpho Imler farewell. She waited while the young griffin lingered, pitifully. And, she waited while he wailed. His angst patterned by the ministers who carried it on a chant down the line. Aquilo, the eaglewind howled, as he cried. Finally, while the storm rumbled over head, Celatrix Verna began, “Ecce! Rudolphe morte. Rudolphe anime. Ecce! Archele vive. Archele corpe. Ecce!”
In the basement of one of his safe houses, the Inquisitor perused racks of weapons. After filling three duffle bags, he stopped, shook his head and chuckled, “it’s never enough.” He cross slung the bags, negotiated the stairs out of the basement, and wobbled his way down the hall through the living room and into the garage. With the car loaded and the driver’s door open, he pushed the button on the wall an inch below the light switch. While waiting for the garage door, he ran into the kitchen and grabbed a drink from the fridge. He unscrewed the lid, threw back his head and took three full swigs of his blue drink. One push of the blinking red Start button, the engine turned over and a neon green light encircled the button. The Inquisitor threw the car into reverse, carefully backing out of the garage. Having closed up, the Inquisitor drove cautiously through neighborhoods before arriving at the primary safe house. With confidence and deliberately slow movements, the Inquisitor entered the living room, locked the door, and held his breath as he turned.
“What took so long?” Jougs asked.
“Errands frequently take longer than expected.”
“What took so long?” Vorant repeated.
“I went shopping,” the Inquisitor answered.
“You get toys for everyone or just you?” Jougs asked.
“Everyone, of course,” the Inquisitor glanced at Jougs.
“What gives?” Vorant asked.
“Difficulties have presented themselves,” the Inquisitor said. “I could list them, it would not help. Suffice it to say, the location for payment is not advantageous. There exists no alternate, which means we can either manufacture a better place or attend the meeting as planned. I’ve found two locations that are far more acceptable, near the original site, yet secluded enough for our purposes. The trick is in acquiring the Chief Justice without drawing suspicion.”
“The Chief…” Jougs dropped his head, sighed, and finished, “Justice.”
“You think he’s gonna stiff us?” Vorant asked.
“Is that rain?” the Inquisitor put a hand to his ear. “Why, yes. Yes, it is rain.”
“No one stiffs me,” Vorant stated.
“Exactly, Mister Vorant. No one stiffs me,” the Inquisitor clapped Vorant’s shoulder, “no one.” Even though he wanted to shudder when his mind’s eye dredged up the image of Adonis’ face leering over his followers, the Inquisitor maintained his façade. Bad enough that they know he’s powerful, he reasoned. Let them find out Adonis’ other little connection? Watch rats flee a sinking ship. “We’ll corner him, arrange our payment, collect, and then we’re gone.”
“What about the girls?” Jougs asked.
“A problem for another day,” the Inquisitor replied.