“Mrs. Fleisher?” Hans repeated dumbly.
The woman he was hugging stepped back and looked up at him. “It’s been thirty years,” she said. “I got married.” Behind Linda, the hostess smirked bemusedly and decided to back away and let them have their reunion.
While Hans goggled at his old friend, I more surreptitiously looked her over. Linda Fleisher was an average looking woman in almost all respects. She was neither short nor tall. Her hair was brown, with a few strands of gray. She wore a jean jacket over a simple blouse and slacks, and a charm bracelet on her left wrist. There were only a couple of wrinkles around the edges of her eyes, and if I’d had to guess at her age I would’ve assumed she was in her mid-forties. Nothing that I saw screamed ‘witch!’
Then their conversation caught up to me. “Thirty years?” I blurted. Hans looked like he was in his mid-thirties. So unless they’d met when he was five and he’d served under Mr. Salvatore as a toddler, there was something seriously off with my mental estimations about both their ages.
Linda glanced my way. “Yes,” she said. “This big lug never writes. I’d think he was illiterate, if I didn’t know he read so much.” I skewed my gaze away from Linda and up at Hans.
Mental note: Ask Hans how old he is. Freak out. Try to get over it.
Satisfied that I now had a plan for the rest of my afternoon and evening, I tried to come up with something to say to Linda, since I’d hijacked her reunion with Hans. I didn’t get to, though, because Linda was already done talking to me.
“And Emma,” Linda said. “I did not expect to see you here.” She frowned, and her eyes locked on mine disapprovingly — but she was still talking to Emma. “You look like Hell.”
“I gave blood yesterday,” Emma said, “and then I had a really bad day today,” she added while Linda slid into the booth opposite her. Hans sat next to Linda, across from me. “But don’t worry, I’ll get better.”
“So I can see,” Linda observed while looking at Emma again. “But it’s good that you sound chipper, at least. Keeping your spirits up is important when dealing with a weakened aura.”
Emma nodded. “I know, I know,” she said. “Someone can waste away and die of depression, but sometimes when that happens it’s because a fae helped.” She sounded like she was reciting a warning, and Linda nodded in agreement.
“It’s important that the people around you know not to upset you for a few days,” Linda said conversationally. I got the distinct impression that she was actually telling that to Hans and I, despite facing Emma when she did. “I do hope they pamper you properly.”
Emma grinned. “They will,” she said with certainty.
My gaze caught Hans’. I was a little relieved to see that he was just as determined to do so as I was, now. The flicker of communication between us lasted only a second before Linda interrupted. This time, she actually was addressing Hans.
“Now,” she said, “what is it that has you finally calling me again, Hans?”
Hans cleared his throat and started to explain. I let him. Emma listened for a little bit, then seemed to get bored. She leaned over with her head against my shoulder and proceeded to doze until the appetizers arrived. Hans interrupted his retelling whenever the servers came by, but otherwise dominated the conversation. I would have been fine with that, except Linda spent the time that she wasn’t talking by letting her gaze bore into my skull. By the time Hans had gotten her entirely up to date — minus a few of the more intimate details and the fact that Megan, not himself, had been my first blood — I felt like Linda’s eyes had drilled all the way through my head. The only reason I wasn’t dead from it, I figured, was that I’d died already. I felt small and stupid and a little bit afraid to move, just in case doing so made my brains slosh out the holes Linda’s eyes had carved through my skull.
I hadn’t ordered an entree, unlike everyone else, and barely touched the appetizers. Emma had finished eating while Hans talked. Then she put her legs up over my lap and leaned back against the wall to sleep. She hugged herself while she dozed with her face turned toward the back of the booth’s seating. Every once in a while she would shift a little or make a small noise. Hans hadn’t touched his food at all, but Linda had pecked slowly at hers while listening. When Hans was finished, Linda spoke softly — I assumed so as not to disturb Emma.
“Well,” Linda said. “That is quite a tale.”
I swallowed and nodded. “I know I’m not doing very well,” I said. I couldn’t even begin to claim otherwise, not with Emma right there. “I’m trying to do my best, but I don’t even know what to do in general, let alone what the best things are. Hans thought you could help.”
Linda nodded absentmindedly, but she didn’t seem to be really paying attention to me. She was watching Emma sleep. “You know, I advised her against joining Salvatore’s donors,” Linda remarked. “Rather strongly, at that, but she was determined that she could do more, sooner, if she lent her strength to someone who was already strong rather than develop her skill on her own. I can’t honestly say she was wrong in that assessment, but at least with Salvatore’s group I knew Katherine was there to keep an eye on her.”
I swallowed and wondered if Linda had just not heard the part about Katherine working with the fae and trying to murder me.
Linda fixed her gaze back on me. “I want you to understand that the help I am willing to give you comes only because Hans asked on your behalf, and I care enough about Emma to do what I can to insure her safety even if she isn’t under my roof any longer.” I shrank back, more than a little intimidated. “I have had a lot of time to prepare for Archarel to come seeking vengeance,” Linda continued. “I’ve kept a strong guard on the faerie gate that his last changeling opened, and he knows it. If Archarel comes after me or after this city, he will not find his targets undefended. There are many more witches in residence here than there were at the end of the last war, and stronger ones at that.”
“I don’t think Archarel will strike here, if he captures your friend,” Linda said. “Perhaps, if Katherine’s machinations had removed Salvatore from the field as he intended, he would have. But with another vampire in Salvatore’s place I think he will not be so brash. Especially given what befell his daughter when Salvatore caught up to her.” Linda shrugged. “Unfortunately, I’ve never known a fae to have only one plot at hand, and Archarel is no exception.”
Linda pursed her lips in thought, and then sighed. “If I had to guess? The bonds of blood and family flow in more than one direction. Marriage to your friend would let her act as a changeling in Archarel’s territory — but it would also give him a claim on the kingdom from which Megan was born.” Linda frowned. “I think that if he struck now, that would be where his move would be made. An oblique approach, hitting somewhere that we wouldn’t expect him to be. And if that’s the case, and you want to stop him, I’m afraid you’re on your own.”
“What?” I protested. Even Hans looked surprised.
Linda shrugged. “My girls are important to me,” she said. “They are in a very real way my family. I won’t ask them to put themselves at risk needlessly. If Archarel brings his war here, then that’s one thing. But I’m not going to send them off to fight it somewhere else, when they could live in safety and peace otherwise. That’s all there is to it.”
I shivered. I couldn’t argue with that logic, and I felt sickly guilty for the disappointment that hit me. “Okay,” I said. “I get it.” I wanted to get out of here. Going out in the daylight, facing down my parents, being outed to Dad, hurting Emma… none of that had been worth it for this.
Linda frowned, but it was a sympathetic one. “I’ll still help you however I can without forcing Archarel to turn his attention to me. I can give you some advice, help explain the ins and outs of magic and faerie politics. It might not be as much as you’d hoped for,” she shrugged, “but it is what I’m willing to offer.”
Hans looked a little angry. I could tell he’d expected more support from his friend, even though he hadn’t seen her in so long. I didn’t let him reply. “Okay,” I said. “Thank you. It’s more than I have any right to ask for, and I appreciate whatever advice you can give. I don’t want to get in a fight with Archarel. I just want to keep my friends safe. And that includes Megan.”
Linda nodded. “In that case, the more immediate problem is yourself. Fae are immortal. They can move swiftly, particularly if they’ve been involved in the mortal world and gotten caught up in mortal perceptions of time — but just as often they are slow to act. You, on the other hand, have already done terrible damage to some of your friends.” She nodded to Emma and Hans both.
“I feel fine,” Hans protested, and Linda scoffed at him.
“Your aura is a mess,” she said. “You might feel fine, physically, but that has nothing to do with the state of your aura. Right now I think it would be simple for a magician to beguile you with spells, and if your wolf came out it could be days before your aura recovered enough to subdue it again.” Linda shook her head. “I know how much you invest yourself in taking care of others, but this isn’t something you can handle alone.” She gestured at Emma. “And Abigail’s demands are clearly more than any mortal — practitioner or not — can provide.”
Hans scowled, but conceded the point. “Then what do you advise?” he growled bitterly. I looked away from Emma and at Hans. I’d only known him a little while, but it wasn’t like him to be this touchy. When was the next full moon? He had said he could get irritable around one… I tried to remember if I’d seen him angry lately.
Well, you did see him shoot someone in the face this morning, I reminded myself.
“First, you will need to find more practitioners that you can trust. Emma won’t be recovered enough to properly read auras for at least two days, and that’s assuming she’s kept safe from excessive emotional turbulence, opportunistic fae, and thirsty vampires.” The last was directed pointedly at me. I winced and cringed back, but couldn’t say anything in reply. “Abigail will need to keep someone on hand who can read auras and insure she isn’t taking too much from any one donor. Salvatore didn’t have that problem: all of his donors were witches and could keep an eye out for each other. But even then, he had Katherine to oversee everyone and make sure no mistakes were made.”
“Where can I,” I started to ask — but Linda cut me off.
“No. I’m not directing you to any of my girls, whether they’ve graduated or not,” Linda said firmly. “If you want to find someone suitable, you’ll have to find them on your own: I won’t be responsible for directing you to them. If you must, contact the Center and see if they can put the word out to the community. Their souls are gray enough from sacrificing others. But stay off the college campus. Those kids are under my aegis, Abigail.”
I nodded again. Linda smiled, but it wasn’t a happy one. She was clearly not pleased with any of this situation. “Beyond that,” Linda said, “I would think the answer to managing your craving is obvious.” Linda forked a bite from her plate. I twitched. If I had put Emma through this grief, messed up Hans and terrified Megan… if I had let my hunger get the best of me so many times because I had overlooked something obvious then I wasn’t going to be able to forgive myself.
Linda finished chewing and swallowed. When she saw that I was still hanging on her last statement, needing whatever it was she’d thought of to be spelled out, she sighed. She forked another bite and gestured with it. “Witches, Warlocks, and Magicians don’t have the strength to provide for you,” she stated. “And Hans can’t do it on his own forever. So, since Hans has proven over the last thirty years that he isn’t willing to join another pack, it looks like he’s finally going to have to start one of his own.”