Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or consent. All other characters
belong to the author, with thanks to Kimberly T. for the help and suggestions. Some sexual content, though probably nowhere near enough for the Godiva
fans. Sorry 'bout that. July 2003. 12,000 words.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Coldfire scanned the letter again
and again, as if repeated viewing could change the printed text.
Such luck was not with her.
Although she was, as a gargoyle soul trapped in a robotic body, supposedly immune from the physical effects of emotion, it felt as though her heart had plunged into her stomach, which then knotted. No tear ducts lined the glass orbs of her optical receptors, but she was sure she did not imagine the stinging of tears.
"My love?" The concerned rumble was the voice of her mate, and it was followed by the whir and hum of him rising to his feet. "What is it?"
Her throat was not capable of clenching and rendering her unable to speak. All the same, she could not bring herself to utter the words. She handed him the letter instead, with a hand that should have trembled.
Coldstone took the paper and read it, his brow ridge furrowed in concentration. His face could still show expression. He smiled.
Golden fists clenched with a slight metallic squeal. "You're pleased?"
"Aren't you?" he asked, his smile turning to a puzzled frown. "They are coming home. I thought that's what you wanted, what you had been wishing for these past four years."
"Yes, but …"
"Every night, it seemed," Coldstone said, brushing his knuckles against the cool curve of her cheek. "I know how you've missed them. I would have thought that this would make you happy."
"I have missed them," she said. "Our sons, our children, of course I've missed them! A part of me died when they had to leave this place. When she drove them away."
"As I recall," he said, "we suggested that they go."
"We'd not have had to, if not for her."
Expression, yes, and now his was that of someone treading on thin ice. She knew his soul as she knew her own. He was inwardly debating the wisdom of defending Godiva. She was their employer and in effect their leader, and he retained enough of the old traditions to respect that. Yet he also knew that it was generally ill-advised to contradict one's mate, especially when the matter involved a female such as Godiva.
"Do you fear that she might still …" Coldstone trailed off meaningfully. He shook the letter, paper rattling. "This would seem to indicate –"
"But that's just it," Coldfire cried. "Our sons are coming home, and I should be delighted! I should be relieved that they've found new loves to keep them from falling prey to that indigo harlot. I should weep with joy for Gabriel, whose past has been so sorrowful. I should welcome the female he has chosen for his mate."
"Then why do you not?"
"Because she is human!"
He opened his mouth, closed it with a snap, shrugged.
"I like Liz Dorsett, I do," Coldfire said, despair ringing in her tone. "She is a strong-minded, capable woman, independent, admirable. I would have been honored to call her ally and friend. I like her family. They are good and decent people."
"Yes," Coldstone said. "And Gabriel loves her."
She couldn't flinch, but she wanted to. "I know."
"Then what is the matter?"
"They are our sons, my love. Gabriel and Angus are the only offspring we will ever know. They are all that remains to prove that once, we too were flesh and blood. That we lived, and loved. What use is it, if we cannot go on through our children and their children?"
"We have all the clan's children," he began.
"No! Perhaps once, that was sufficient. The world has changed. Our clan has changed. Do you think that the hatchlings at Wyvern are in any way ours? They are not! Our hope, our line, ends with Gabriel and Angus. And what have they done? They've chosen humans to love … humans … and as glad as I am for them that they will not lead loveless lives, I grieve for the grandchildren that we will never know!"
Coldstone actually took a step back from this tirade. "My brother, Goliath, has never regretted his Elisa. They have Amber –"
"Thanks to the magic of Avalon! How likely do you think it that either of our sons will be so fortunate?"
"Avalon!" he said, sounding relieved, as though he had seen a way out. "You told me that you laid three eggs. One of them must still be on Avalon. So, our line does not end. It will go on."
"You cannot know that."
"What else would you have me do?" he asked. "Forbid Gabriel to take Liz as his mate? You said yourself how much he has already lost. Do not take this last chance from him."
"I do not begrudge Gabriel his happiness," she said. "If ever anyone in all the history of this sad world has earned it, Gabriel has. But see the example he sets for Angus! By choosing Liz, he leads Angus to think that when he and Jeannie are of age, they too can become mates."
"I do not think that Angus needs that example set for him," Coldstone said. "You forget, he was raised by humans. Would you rather he or Gabriel fell in love with one of the dinosaur clan?"
"They are more like us, yes, but are they akin enough to breed? We do not know. And it should not matter. The choice is theirs."
"I had hoped that you would understand my feelings in this, my love."
"I do," he said. "But it is not our decision. We were given a second chance, and might otherwise never have even known Gabriel and Angus. Whatever else, we should be grateful for that."
Coldfire ached to sigh. An intake through her cooling vents did not quite seem the same. "I am grateful! By rights, we were dead long before they hatched anyway."
"So let them be." Coldstone took the golden mask of her face in his hands and peered into her receptors. "Let them find their own way, and be happy for them. They wish to come home. Gabriel wishes to present his mate to us. That is what is most important."
She let herself be drawn into his embrace, metal against metal and flesh. He stroked the back of her head as if he could still feel the soft tresses of her hair. With a low clank, she leaned her brow against his shoulder.
"You are right, my love," she said. It wrenched again at her nonexistent heart to say so.
"What worries me," Coldstone said, "is Godiva. Whether she will … interfere. I do not think she was pleased when Gabriel and Angus went away."
"She certainly was not," hissed Coldfire. "She nearly ruined Gabriel, and would have sunk her claws into Angus as well. It would have meant nothing to her, nothing but a night's pleasure. The whore!"
"You should not speak so –"
"She is our leader."
"In name only. Just as this is a clan in name only, and a poor excuse for one at that. The only reason that she keeps us here is because she needs us to contribute to her illusion. You and I, Hoshi and Ohta, we give her claim a legitimacy she would otherwise not have. But there is no clan-bond among us. Godiva does not even know the meaning of the word. If she did, she would know better than to try and lure males from their mates!"
"She stands little chance of that."
"It hasn't stopped her trying," Coldfire said darkly. "Hoshi told me that she had spoken of it to Godiva, asked her to leave off with her attempts at Ohta. Do you know what Godiva did then? Do you know what she said?"
"I suspect it might have had something to do with Hoshi joining in," Coldstone said.
"The very thing! I do not doubt for a moment that were I flesh and blood, she would suggest the same to me." Without raising her head, she added, "And wipe that lustful look from your face this instant, if you please. Even were I flesh and blood, I would never play at love with her."
"I did not know that your hatred for her was quite this fierce," Coldstone remarked.
"She taunts me," Coldfire said, breaking the embrace and turning away.
"Taunts me. Making much of the fact that she can feel, that her robotic body is so much more lifelike and sensitive than mine. That she can pass for a genuine gargoyle. Which is a lie! Genuine gargoyle, my tail! At least I have the soul of a gargoyle still, while she has barely a soul at all. She cares for nothing but physical sensation. She mocks love, and she is in truth unloved."
He touched her shoulders from behind. "My love –"
"I've told her so. I've asked her how it feels to know that while she is desired by men and envied by women, it is only as a sex object. Only as a slightly better version of those inflatable dolls purchased by the truly sad and desperate."
"You said this to her?" asked Coldstone in alarm.
"I told her that for all her fame, she is not liked by a single living being. That she has no friends, only an endless string of meaningless affairs. That she is a thing, not a person, and all anyone will remember about her is that she was as wanton a whore as any who ever sold themselves on the streets."
"You actually said this to her?"
"That no one will ever care who she is, only what she is. That eventually, when she has exhausted every possible position and combination, when she grows bored with her parade of lovers, she'll someday awaken to the realization that no one in all the world cares for her."
"I cannot believe that you said this to her."
"Oh, I did," said Coldfire, relishing the memory. "Of course, I was very angry at the time, but it is all true."
"What did she do?" He was looking at her with a new awareness, as if he had never seen her before and was wondering what other facets of her personality he might have missed.
"Told me that I, in turn, was a fussing, frigid, jealous prude of a mother hen."
"And Hoshi, who had listened quietly, intervened before we could come to blows. She has that calming way about her, Hoshi does, and got us to walk away from one another. She could not, however, quite wrench an apology from either of us."
"When was this? Why did you never tell me?"
"It was shortly after Gabriel and Angus left. I did not want to burden you with my troubles."
He turned her to face him. "Your troubles are mine, my love. I knew that you were no friend of Godiva, but had I known she treated you in this way –"
"What?" She tilted her head and looked up at him. "You would have challenged her? You would have taken us away from here? No … I did not want either of those. I enjoy this city, which accepts us, which lives so much by night."
"Still …" he grumbled.
"Hoshi told me that she had had a similar confrontation with Godiva."
"Why do I find that hard to believe?"
"Perhaps without the viciousness and name-calling," Coldfire amended. "But Hoshi, rightly perceiving that she and Ohta as the only true gargoyles are vital to Godiva's acceptance as leader of a clan, went to her with an ultimatum. That Godiva stay well away from Ohta, or they would leave and let it be known that she was unfit, both as leader and as gargoyle."
"And Godiva accepted this?"
"Hoshi also threatened her."
Coldstone scoffed. "What would she have done? I grant you that Godiva is no warrior herself, but she is twice the size of Hoshi."
"Not with violence, my love. Hoshi said that she would contact the family of Sabra Indrani, and let them know precisely what had become of that wheelchair-bound lady. Both her body, and her soul."
"Ah," he said.
"That, according to Hoshi, did the trick. Godiva has no wish for her true identity to become known."
"So, should she then attempt … anything … with Gabriel or Angus …?"
"Would I do the same as Hoshi, do you mean?"
"To protect my children and preserve their happiness? Of course I would! And if Godiva dares to suggest that I should prefer her to a human for either of my sons … why, I'll rip those golden locks from her scalp by the roots, and strangle her with them. It would not kill her, but it would be ever so satisfying."
"Perhaps, though," Coldstone said, "there is some other way. There must be."
He was a marvelous lover, but he
Godiva rose from the bed in a fluidly graceful motion that did not disturb the slumbering man. His long, slow, droning breaths continued. Behind closed lids, his eyes flicked, and a hint of a smile rested on his lips.
Dreaming. Dreaming of her, maybe, and the hours they'd just spent and the many, delicious, varied acts they had performed.
She stood for a time, watching him, tail swaying lazily.
What was his name again?
Oh, yes. She filed it with the others, automatically alphabetizing the list. The very extensive list, of which the corresponding one of female names was only half as long. She didn't have anything against enjoying a woman. Far from it! But only men could really satisfy her, really give her what she needed.
But if that was the case … why wasn't she satisfied? Why was she, after such a pleasant evening, still restless?
Leaving him sprawled across a bed that wouldn't have been more rumpled if an army had marched over it, Godiva went into the bathroom of her suite. A click of a switch and hidden lights came on, gleaming off marble and tile and chrome.
Myriad mirror images paced her as she moved to the large shower. Sleek limbs, jutting breasts, glossy indigo skin … even after more than fifteen years, she sometimes had trouble believing that the goddess-like image in the glass was truly her.
Fifteen years, and nothing was sagging, nothing was going grey, nothing was wrinkled or faded or old. She was eternal in her youth, suppleness, and beauty.
Only when she spent too long gazing into her reflected eyes did she see something else. A haggard wreck of a crippled body, hunched over the controls of a wheelchair. Aged beyond her years, ugly beyond all reason.
Shuddering, Godiva blinked her gaze away from the mirrors and turned on the steaming jets that shot from all sides of the shower compartment. She extended one shapely dancer's leg, testing the temperature with her arched and clawed foot, then stepped in. The hot deluge cascaded over her, forming sluicing streams between her wings and breasts.
Washing six feet of thick blond hair was a chore, one that made her wish for a bathtime companion. Some of her lovers stayed awake long enough to shower with her afterwards, but the majority of them collapsed into a nearly comatose condition, as the current one had done.
She didn't hold it against them. If they still had energy, she'd much rather it be put to better use.
But if all his energy had gone to that, and so successfully, why did she feel this way? Her body still tingled with afterglow, her nether regions had the sweet ache that lingered after one vigorous climax after another. And still she felt …
How did she feel?
Not unfulfilled, not exactly. Not dissatisfied. Empty, somehow.
As if nothing that had happened earlier really, well, mattered.
What an absurd thing to think. Of course it mattered. It was what she had wanted. Or thought she had, at the time.
Maybe it was because her conquests were always too easy? Maybe it was because her lovers these past few years had all been human, and she craved something more?
Preposterous. She didn't want a challenge. Life had been her challenge, mere movement, mere existence without pain and pity and horrible seething envy. All she wanted now was ease, luxury, and glorious sex.
Except that, while good, it fell short of glorious somehow.
Maybe she did need a gargoyle.
If that was the case, it was going to complicate things. She didn't want the hassle of vengeful she-gargoyles.
When had the idea of stealing even the most devoted male away from his mate soured for her? There had been a time when she would have relished it, the triumph of seducing them against all their best intentions, the knowledge that their jealous females would be furious … furious but too late to do anything but fume.
And it would be so easy, too!
Then again, maybe that was it. The ease. Maybe, despite her earlier thoughts, she did need a challenge. When she knew she was the most wanted female in the world, when she knew she could have any man with a glance and a deep breath and a snap of her talons, what was the fun?
Sticking her head into the spray, Godiva wondered at herself. Of course that sort of thing was fun! It was power, the power of allure, the power of sex.
After fifteen years, though …
"I'm bored," she said into the hiss of the water. "I don't believe it. I'm bored."
She groaned. Rivulets trickled through the backswept quills of her tiara-like ridge and dripped from her brows.
Bored. Essentially immortal, with centuries ahead of her, and she was tired of it already? That didn't seem fair. She knew that living forever wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Her time with Demona had taught her that much.
Maybe … it was crazy and she knew it … but maybe there was more to life than endless fabulous sex.
Being alone was terrible. She'd learned that much from Demona, too. No one to trust, no one to … to …
"To care about," Godiva said, making a sour face. "But that's no good either! What's the use of caring about someone when they're just going to get old and ugly and die on you? Ugh. Sentimentality. Fuck that!"
She slapped the controls, turning the water to an icy blast to drive these unwelcome notions from her mind.
Loneliness. Boredom. How stupid was that?
With the suds rinsed from her hair, she emerged and swathed herself in a succession of fluffy white towels with the Coventry logo embroidered in each corner. Concealed vents blew air against the mirrors, clearing away the steam. She wrung out her hair, then stood beneath a warm fan, letting towels fall away one by one.
A discreet light blinked on her console as she came out of the bathroom, slipping into a silky robe. Her lover had turned over, snoring muffled in satin pillows, his world-class buttocks in full view.
Beyond him, through the sheer gauze that draped the window, the fantastic skyline of Las Vegas sparkled against the riotous desert sky. Sunset light still ruled in the west, vibrant airbrush scarlet, violet, deep gold. Godiva ignored the signal long enough to take in the view, as always amazed that such a city should have sprung up where there would otherwise be no sane reason to live.
She went to the console and pressed the message button, reading cool blue letters that scrolled up a glassy screen.
"What new act?" she asked no one. "Who hired a new act without consulting me? I am still the owner around here."
The message was from Hoshi, and Godiva frowned. Demure though she might be, the little Japanese gargoyle was getting more and more independent. Uppity, even. True, she did handle most of the actual management of the hotel, and she was more or less the official liaison to the varied entertainers, but the Coventry was still Godiva's hotel.
What did they think she was? Just some empty-headed bimbo with no sense for how to run a business?
It brought her up short. Come to think of it, she had been leaving an awful lot of the running of the place to the others lately. For, oh, about four or so years. During that time, she'd devoted herself to her performances, her parties, and her series of affairs. She only took cursory glances at the quarterly reports. Why, for all she knew, Hoshi could be robbing her blind.
She dressed hastily in a gold-and-black sequined halter and matching skirt with slits up both sides nearly to the hip. Her hair, still damp, she combed into a modified French twist and clipped it with a swirl of black enamel pin large enough to double as a medieval buckler. A dash of golden glitter over each eye, a quick touch-up on the metallic flake paint that adorned the claw-tips of her fingers and toes, a spritz of her own signature perfume, and she was ready.
The Coventry was all Olde English ambiance and cacophonous jangles from the casino floor. Waitresses in bloomers and corsets hurried past with trays full of drinks. Godiva was aware of heads turning in her wake, some of them belonging to patrons who hadn't torn their attention from the slot machines or blackjack tables since lunchtime.
As she passed through the doors into the second theater, she stopped in shock. When had all of this been done? She conducted her private concerts in the smallest of the Coventry's three venues, with the largest revolving one being reserved for the big Shakespearean productions. This one, usually used for magic acts and musical numbers, was not as she remembered it.
How long had it been since she'd come in here? It was her own hotel, but she was so busy … still, she should have been aware of work of this magnitude!
The stage was covered with see-saws, trapezes, nets, large silver hoops, barrels, hanging rings, parallel and uneven bars, and other objects that she couldn't immediately identify. The lush wine-colored velvet drapes were gathered in folds to the sides. Looking up, she saw that the domed ceiling was likewise crowded with equipment. It looked like an acrobat's nightmare.
A small group sat in the front row. She recognized the golden glint of Coldfire first, Coldstone beside her. Hoshi, black hair caught up in a bun pierced by two scrimshaw ivory chopsticks. A gruff, unfamiliar man in a tailored white shirt.
Godiva went down the aisle, past curved booths of wine-red upholstery and small round tables. The quartet looked around as she drew near, and rose to meet her.
The man, in his late fifties perhaps and with hard-edged, heavy features, extended a hand. "Madam Godiva," he said, his voice deep and thickly accented. "I am Egor Dyakanov. It is an honor, and a pleasure."
"Thank you," Godiva purred automatically. "You're … from Russia, I take it?"
His nod was brusque.
"I am glad you could join us, Godiva-san," Hoshi said, bowing over her folded hands.
"I am glad you thought to invite me," Godiva said, no longer purring. "Given that it is my hotel and all."
Coldfire's eyes flashed, but before she could speak Hoshi bowed again. "It is a surprise for you."
"It certainly is."
"I hope that you will like it."
"I don't know. Maybe you'd be good enough to tell me what this is about."
Egor Dyakanov cleared his throat. "It is our hope that you will be able to help some of my, uh, countrymen. Perhaps this is not the right word. But they have come from the valley of the Volga river, looking for a new life in America."
"I offered them an audition here, Godiva-san," Hoshi said. "We had an opening. Please to sit down and watch, and then decide."
"You took some liberties with the remodeling, I see," said Godiva, an edge in her tone. "How long did this take? How much did it cost? Why wasn't I consulted?"
"As I said, it is a surprise."
"I don't like surprises."
"Oh, you'll like this one," Coldfire said. "I am quite sure of that."
Suspicion narrowed Godiva's eyes. "What's this all about?"
"Watch," Coldstone suggested.
"This," she said, snapping her wings into a folded position and sitting down, crossing her legs at the ankles, "had better be good."
Hoshi gestured above and behind, to the electronics control booth windows with their dark glass. The lights in the theater dimmed.
"This is their first American performance," Dyakanov said. Although he looked otherwise calm, he was methodically shredding confetti bits off the napkin that held his drink.
Music swelled. Mussorgsky. A Night on Bald Mountain. Spotlights raced each other around the stage, lighting the silvery equipment in green, blue, purple, red. And then, in a frantic blur of motion, the stage was full of gargoyles.
Gargoyles. Diving, leaping, tumbling. She was dizzied trying to follow any one of them long enough to get a good look. Never had she seen anyone move with such lightning speed. One sprang into the cupped hands of another, was flung, executed a flawless back-over-flip onto the raised edge of a see-saw, catapulting a third in a spinning somersault. At the apex, a limber tail snared a trapeze.
She couldn't even be sure how many of them there were. She had only impressions of wings, chests, tails, flowing hair, muscular legs. Then, as one soared directly overhead to continue his dazzling routine on the rings above them, she had a brief but unobstructed view of a marvelously sculpted male physique.
His skin was burnished steel, his hair a full mass of light-blond, and he wore only a pair of briefs that very much lived up to the name. They were brief, tight, and an iridescent shiny white. And they bulged as if someone had stuffed a cantaloupe down the front.
It dawned on her that she must look like the village idiot, gaping at the amazing sights spinning and whirling by. But she didn't care.
There seemed to be at least half a dozen of them, and mostly males. They glided in flips and turns and aerobatic contortions that she had never imagined, always seeming doomed to crash into one another, or rip off their wings diving through blade-edged hoops hanging in midair.
The music ended in a flourish with the five gargoyles lined up at the edge of the stage. Only five; she had thought there were more just from the constant blur of their frenzied activity. All wore tight and skimpy white, all were varying shades of grey, and they glistened with sweat in the beams of the spotlights.
The two males on the ends were stockily built, bat-winged, not an ounce of fat on them. One, at the left end of the line, was pewter in color and bald as an egg, with a crown of stubby horns covering his scalp. The other had silvery skin and frosty hair cropped so short it was almost shaved, and a brow ridge that grew in squared-off crenellations that made him resemble the rook from a chess set.
Inward from them were two more males, broad shoulders tapering to narrow waists and trim hips. Their wings were tri-taloned. One of these was the steel-grey male that had passed over her. The other, his skin the color of a storm cloud, had five horns sweeping back over a shoulder-length mane of jet black hair. His tail ended in a bony knob shaped like the head of a sledgehammer.
The female in the center had the short, powerful build and thick thighs of a gymnast. Her complexion was silvery, her hair cropped into a dark pageboy through which rose a double row of fine horns. Her wings were batlike, but set at odd angles to her shoulderblades so that, when closed, they lay flat down her back.
The five of them clasped hands in a row, raised them, high, and then bowed. They stood up again, smiling, as the house lights came up. Hoshi applauded, joined moments later by the metallic chime of Coldfire's hands.
"May I present," said Egor Dyakanov, with a grandiose wave, "from left to right, Ivan, Dmitri, Sonia, Alyosha, and Fyodor: The Karamosovs of Volgasclan!"
Coldstone, who could nearly have been one of them with his white hair and blue-grey skin, was less than enthusiastic.
Godiva was too stunned to clap. She ran her gaze from one end of the line to the other, drinking in these magnificent gargoyles in their almost indecently skimpy white briefs – the female, nearly as flat-chested as a boy, wore a tankini top that she hardly needed. The way they held themselves … performers, conscious and proud of their bodies, exuding stage presence and raw magnetism …
And to think, less than an hour ago she'd actually believed she was getting bored.
"I still say it is deceitful,"
Coldfire, more giddy from relief than she could ever have been from the celebratory champagne cracked open to seal the deal, only laughed.
"Does this not bother you?" he asked.
"My love," she chided. "They are a good act, a wonderful act. They'll be a great success for the Coventry. What better place for a troupe of gargoyle acrobats than the world's only gargoyle-run hotel?"
"Yes, but …"
"Did you hear her?" She laughed again. "Well, the theme of the hotel is Olde English, but I suppose in this case we can make an exception. Ha! As if she weren't sitting there looking for all the world like a hatchling at first harvest feast!"
"All of this, though, to distract her from Gabriel and Angus?"
"It isn't just that, my love," she said.
"To distract her from you, and Ohta, and any of Goliath's clan who might want to pay us a visit. I've invited them again and again, to come and perhaps even bring the little ones, but Angela, Elektra, and Aiden all seem to have this mad idea that Godiva would sink her claws into their mates. If she's finally got all the males she can handle, the rest of us might just know a moment's peace."
"I have told you many times that she holds no appeal for me," Coldstone said. "This distrust is disturbing."
"I trust you, as I ever have! With my heart, my life, my very soul. You know that. It is that blue she-devil I do not trust."
He muttered under his breath, clearly not mollified.
"You must admit," she said, stroking his hair, "that Hoshi's plan was far less volatile than mine. Quite ingenious, really. Seeking out the Karamozovs, arranging their journey here, having the theater remodeled, and all in secret."
"I agree that a brilliant and devious mind burns in that sweet and dainty little head," he said, "but did anyone think to perhaps warn these gargoyles what they're facing?"
"I suspect they'll figure it out very quickly." Coldfire glanced at the clock. "It's been half an hour since she offered to give them the grand tour. So, she's likely already got them in her bed."
"Which of them, though?"
She patted his head. "My love, really … what ever makes you think she'd limit herself to one at a time?"
He growled. "It is not right. Why should any female need more than one male? Was I ever less than enough for you?"
"Never. But she is not like us. She is not a gargoyle, not inside where it counts. Her soul is a human's, and we know what they are like."
"Should not these others know that? It seems to me that you sacrifice them to save the rest."
"Perhaps I am. Perhaps I am putting the welfare of my sons, and my mate, before that of strangers. But is that so wrong? Would it be better if I shredded the membranes of Godiva's wings and hurled her from the topmost balcony?"
Coldstone recoiled. "Such thoughts, my love."
"You do not see her as I do," she said. "You pity her."
"I suppose that I do, yes," he said.
"What you fail to realize, my love, is that she is evil."
"Evil?" he echoed, askance.
"Not in the sense that our former sister, Demona, was evil," Coldfire said. "Hers was evil with a purpose, evil in the guise of believing herself in the right. What she did, misguided though it may have been, she did for what she thought was the good of her clan, and the good of our kind."
"I think that there are those who would argue with you," he said. "Angela, for one. And myself … she turned me into a monster, remember? She trapped our souls with that of my brother – if evil you speak of, remember him! – and tricked us into attacking Goliath."
"And yet, if not for all that, we would not be together now."
He sighed. "There is that."
"But Godiva … she has no purpose. She is the purest form of evil, that of selfishness and unthinking greed. Demona's motives may be understood, if not condoned. She cared deeply, in her way, for her clan and for all gargoyles. Godiva is none of that. Godiva cares for one thing only – herself."
"It's like Christmas in July,"
Godiva murmured, fanning herself. The air conditioning in the hotel was
working perfectly, and the desert night had little to do with the deep
violet flush in her cheeks.
The visitors were admiring the spacious suite to which she'd brought them after the tour. It would normally have been reserved for high rollers, but the ordinary quarters for the live-in staff and entertainers would not do. Not at all.
For one thing, the staff living area was much too far away from her penthouse.
For another, the Karamasovs had stated a preference for shared living space. They were clan, they said, and hadn't been apart from each other for more than a single night since the five of them had cracked shell, fifty years ago.
Their existence had been kept secret by the government of the time, but they had seen more than one of their clan members whisked away for secret study, or put to use in weapons programs. They had, like Godiva in her other life, grown up during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear holocaust loomed large in the minds of every thinking creature. But, like many gargoyles, they had viewed war as a human problem. Whether that had remained the case once the bombs started flying … well, they'd never know.
"This is lovely," said Sonia, the female of the bunch, running her fingers along the surface of a sideboard. "So much room … so much luxury … and all for us?"
"All for you," Godiva said. "I hope that you'll find we can fulfil your every need."
Fyodor, the male with the crenellated brow ridge, gave a low rumble of interest that vibrated all the way through Godiva and left her light-headed. When she looked over at him, he caught and held her gaze with a frankness that left no doubts. Not that she had entertained any doubts in the first place.
Like Christmas … like a kid in a candy store …
Alyosha, he of the steely skin and shaggy blond hair, was slouched in an overstuffed armchair with his wings draped over its arms and his long legs stretched out. He didn't speak much, but she had not missed how his eyes followed her every move. As if he was content to bide his time, to wait, confident that she would come to him.
She hardly knew what to do first. Or, more to the point, who to do first.
The other of the largest males, the one with the bald and knobby-horned head, was Ivan. He'd offered her his arm as they'd proceeded to the elevator. She was quite certain that the way his hand – the backs of his knuckles also knobbed, making her wonder with swooning speculation just where else he might have those intriguing bumps – brushed the sideswell of her breast was no accident.
Dmitri, the black-haired one, had a sort of smoldering, shadowy demeanor that reminded her of someone. About five minutes after meeting him, she realized that the someone was Jericho, who'd been of that same pent-up obsessively passionate ilk.
They explored the rooms that would be theirs, now that their manager had signed Hoshi's carefully-designed contract. Five years. Five years at the Coventry, six shows a week with two nights off, generous pay.
Fringe benefits yet to be determined, but likewise sure to be very, very generous.
Godiva closed her eyes and contemplated those benefits, and was swept by such a wave of arousal that she staggered on her feet. Ivan was there in a flash, solicitously putting an arm around her, letting her lean against him while she recovered.
Her hip was snug up against the front of his briefs. She pressed into him for a second, and flicked the spade-shaped tip of her tail against his ankle, then turned a brilliant smile on him.
"Thank you, Ivan."
"Anytime," he said.
Their accents were just yummy, their words formed with lots of tongue and intriguing mouth movements.
"Would you like to see the rest of the hotel?" she asked. "I could show you the roof."
Alyosha stretched in the chair, the motion lifting his hips and drawing shiny white fabric so tight that she thought it would burst. "I would like to see the roof."
"If I may …?" Ivan offered his arm again, but black-haired Dmitri slipped in before him and twined Godiva's hand around his own elbow.
"My turn, brother, I believe," he said.
"And mine," said Fyodor, taking her other arm.
Sonia, the one factor about which Godiva remained unsure and worried, alleviated her concerns with a throaty chortle. "I think you find my brothers vying for your attention already," she said. "Thank the Dragon for that … they have been nearly crazed with no other females around."
"So, none of you are mates?" Godiva asked.
A chorus of no's from the males and another chortle answered that.
"They are my brothers!" Sonia said.
"In our clan," Fyodor said, "it is custom that you only take a mate from outside. We were getting too weak, you see, too … what is word? When there is not enough new blood to keep the hatchlings strong."
"Inbred," said Godiva.
"Yes, inbred." He indicated himself and the others. "That is why we are all so close in the same color."
"Sonia is our only sister," Ivan said. "So we may not mate with her."
"I am not ready for a mate anyway," Sonia said.
"Ah, none of us are," said Dmitri, smoothing a strand of black hair behind his horns. "Commitment. Hatchlings. Responsibility." He made a disgusted noise.
Fyodor hastened to say, "Not all of us are fearing commitment. Some of us are more serious-minded."
"That's a shame," Godiva said, favoring him with a smoky look. "I'm not. Why settle for one mate when there are so many delightful possibilities?"
"I did not necessarily refer to myself," he said, backpedaling as fast as he'd spoken in the first place. "I only meant in general, yes? Gargoyles in general. Not me personally."
"Like Hoshi and Ohta, or Coldfire and Coldstone," Godiva said. "They are very much mated, nauseatingly committed, and totally off limits. Just a word to the wise."
"We understand," Alyosha said, finally rising from the chair and stretching again, turning as he did to show off his chest, his back, and his tail to excellent advantage.
She took them up to the roof, which was designed with many small hidden nooks and balconies that afforded views of the city and privacy at the same time. Below, seen through a haze of netting, was the shimmering blue jewel of the private staff pool. The gargoyles exclaimed over the rising spires of the Excalibur, the heaven-spearing beam from the Luxor, the light-show at the Shangri-La, the Bellagio's fountain display, the hourly cataclysmic fireworks eruption over at the Vesuvius.
Standing at the rail, Godiva was pleased but not especially surprised to feel a surreptitious hand caress the small of her back. She arched into the stroke, and leisurely turned her head. Ivan was at her side, seemingly gazing out over the city, but he threw a sidelong glance her way, and she smiled.
The atmosphere was definitely charged. It wasn't a matter of knowing that she was going to have them. It was only a matter of when. And they knew it, too. Sonia's words to the contrary, Godiva picked up no sense of competition from the males. Cooperation, instead. They worked together too closely, depended on each other even more than warriors might, to be at odds.
"You are an incredibly beautiful female," Dmitri said. "If I may say so."
"Feel free," she replied, chucking him playfully under the chin with her fingertips. "I never tire of hearing it."
Sonia looked amused. "Should I leave the five of you alone? Or would you rather have dinner first?"
"The meal is probably ready by now," Godiva said. "If you're hungry, we can continue the tour later."
"Have we not seen everything?" asked Fyodor.
"Not quite everything." She held his gaze. "The view from my suite puts this one to shame."
"That, I should very much like to see," Ivan said.
The midnight supper that Hoshi had arranged was in one of the smaller, exclusive dining rooms. She had even been foresightful enough to make sure that the table was surrounded by backless stools instead of traditional chairs, since everyone but Egor Dyakanov and Giles Murdock, her human hotel manager, needed the wing room.
Coldfire, on duty in the security control center, begged off but her mate was present. Even Ohta, who normally shunned social gatherings, was drawn from his greenhouse by the prospect of meeting more gargoyles.
Godiva could hardly keep her mind on the meal. She was much more interested in dessert. And it wasn't like she really needed to eat. She could enjoy the flavors, but her energy derived from electrical sources, be they conventional or by way of galvanic skin response.
Like some of the professional athletes who'd notched her bedpost from time to time, the five acrobats had prodigious appetites. They ate with gusto and delight, though she noticed that all five avoided the alcoholic beverages in favor of glass after glass of heavily sugared ice tea.
Their manager was another story. He picked at the food and kept the waiters busy with refills on his drink. His manner toward Sonia led Godiva to wonder if there was something more going on than she knew about. If so, it was on his end only; Sonia seemed totally oblivious.
"I hope your guests and personnel do not mind," Ivan said, "but it is much colder where we come from, and we are not in the habit of wearing many clothes."
"Oh, just listen to me complain," Godiva said, taking a long, bold look at his body.
Hoshi danced daintily around the topic of how she and Ohta had come to be in Las Vegas. Not even Godiva knew the true circumstances of their exile from their clan, though she guessed it had a sort of Romeo and Juliet color to it.
The acrobats, on the other hand, spoke effusively about their home. Their clan lived in an ancient series of interlocked caves overlooking the Volga river, caves that they'd fortified over the years into defensible strongholds. They did a lot of fishing, and had a great fondness for caviar.
From time to time during dinner, Godiva was aware of subtle under-the-table footsies and tailsies. Fyodor was on her left, Dmitri on her right, Ivan and Alyosha across from her, and she made a game of trying to guess whose foot or tail touched hers at any given time.
It was all far more intoxicating than any amount of wine would have been. Her system couldn't gain the usual effects from alcohol anyway, so, really, this was better. Much, much better.
She hadn't felt this way in years.
Oh, she was going to enjoy this!
"It was really nothing," Hoshi
said, ducking her head diffidently as she walked, with her mincing little
steps, between Ohta and Coldstone. "The idea was Coldfire-san's, not my
"She claims it was yours," Coldstone said.
"Well, it was from something that she had said," amended Hoshi. "Some years ago, a remark, that it would be best for everyone if Godiva-san had some distraction to occupy her time."
"But how did you find them, and arrange this, all in such secrecy?"
A tiny smile flitted across her doll's face, but she wouldn't tell.
Outwardly expressionless as ever,
"I demand an explanation! Don't you know who I am? This is absurd. Where is Godiva? I want to speak to Godiva!"
The man, a racecar driver turned television evangelist, had photogenic features and a superb voice. Even in the state he was in, with a bathrobe on and his evening clothes clutched to his chest in a bundle, he cut an impressive figure in his anger.
"I am afraid that will not be possible," Coldfire said. She inserted her thumb into the electronic lock, heard a clunk, and the door slid silently open to reveal a dimly lit corridor. "This passage –"
"Yes, I know," he snapped.
Its purpose was for personages just such as him, those who could not afford to be seen coming and going from Godiva's quarters, yet he was remarkably unappreciative.
Coldfire had been dispatched, at an urgent, private, and not at all unexpected communication from Godiva, to roust her earlier partner from her bedroom. Even as she steered the blustering, protesting man into the secret corridor, a trio of chambermaids would be busily at work tidying the suite.
"If you would rather go by the main elevators …" Coldfire said, letting her voice trail off.
He gave her an angry, embarrassed look. Evidently, he did not like to be caught naked and snoring, with the marks of Godiva's talons still fading on his back, by anyone. Not even by a robot.
Not that she particularly relished this duty, either. As deputy chief of hotel security, she supposed that she should have been doing slightly more important things than riding herd on Godiva's clandestine lovers.
She saw the evangelist out, making no apologies for her employer's conduct and certainly offering no explanation.
Godiva was no acrobat, but she
was a trained dancer and contortionist in her own right. That came in very
handy when dawn caught her in the most awkward position of her entire life.
It was a dream come true. Surrounded on all sides by male flesh that smelled of musk and leather and excitement.
She had been crouching over Ivan as he knelt behind her with his hands on her hips, the thick and knobbed length of him seated deep inside of her. Alyosha was in front of her, but balanced in a handstand as his tongue darted between her legs and she sucked him as far into her throat as she could. Not to be left out, Dmitri and Fyodor were by her sides, each fondling a breast as her hands wrapped around their jutting cocks.
One moment, they had been a heaving and thrusting unit, all muffled moans and wet slurps. And then, the wide-open curtains showed a sliver of light in the east, an arc, a hemisphere, and all motion had ceased. A grating, crackling noise replaced the sounds of passion. Godiva felt the four of them, already hard, already stiff, go harder and stiffer.
Alarm seized her, but it turned to hysterical giggles as she realized what had happened. Her giggles were strangled around the stony rod, which would have gagged and choked anyone else. She drew back her head, letting Alyosha slip from her mouth.
He remained exactly as he was, poised on his hands and wing-talons, his feet still high in the air. His tongue was now a rough curl of stone, lodged in her folds where it had just seconds before been providing a sweetly tormenting counterpoint to Ivan's thrusts.
And Ivan, well, she certainly knew where he was … the transformation into stone seemed to have made him even bigger, almost uncomfortably so. She was stuck on him, impaled, like a bug on a pin. His big hands were only resting on her hips, not circling her wasp waist like a belt, or else she really would have been in trouble.
Her breasts were clamped in the rock-hard vises of Fyodor and Dmitri's hands. Hers, at least, were able to release their body parts, though the tips of their frozen erections poked relentlessly into her thighs.
The four of them had crowded so close around her that she was entirely hemmed in. She could have pushed Alyosha over, and escaped that way, but he might have broken apart when he hit the floor and she couldn't let that happen.
No, she'd have to be creative. Or at least dexterous.
She looked up. Alyosha's knees were slightly bent, but she should be able to climb out … except that his cock was in the way. She would hate to hit it with her shoulder and snap it off! She would hate that very much.
Easy enough to free her breasts, by leaning back against Ivan. Disengaging from Ivan himself was her next step. She flexed her legs, pushing with her calves and thighs, levering herself up and off and turning at the same time to free her waist from his grasp. His hands remained holding an invisible partner.
Sinking down with what felt like a fire hydrant jammed against the base of her tail, she considered.
Call for help? The computer console was out of reach, even if she snaked her tail out. She did have an internal communications system that would let her send an SOS, but …
But just imagine the sneer that wouldn't be on Coldfire's face, but would be in her heart, if they found her like this. Word might not get around to the entire staff, but she would rather not let any of them know. This was worse than the time that a very married, very family-values politician had suffered a stroke and died in her bed.
Her wings and breasts would make it impossible to flatten herself enough to squeeze around. She might have been able to go under Alyosha, but his hair, hanging down from his scalp, had become a dense cluster of pointy stalactites.
She twisted sideways, slid backward, and raised her knee. No good. Now her back was against Dmitri, his enticingly curved protuberance snug in the hollow of her waist above her hip, but her right leg was hooked over Ivan's knobby appendage and caught under his hand. One of her wings extended out between Alyosha and Dmitri, the other was bent and crumpled.
"Damn it," she muttered.
Trying again, she worked her way up to a standing position. Slowly. Carefully. Her knee spur caught on Alyosha's tongue and she winced, not wanting to snap that off either. Fyodor's cock poked her hard in the breast.
"Ow … shit …" She had to laugh, exasperated as she was.
Hunching her shoulders, she was able to get her wings up and out. They arched over Dmitri. But now she was bent double, with Alyosha's cock under her chin. Squirming, she scraped her breasts along Ivan's face. She braced her hands on the bump-studded crown of his head and pushed, trying to lever herself out. But her arms weren't nearly as strong as her legs.
She rested her foot on something, realized whose and what it was, hastily removed it. "Sorry, Fyodor."
This was getting ridiculous!
It was a damn good thing that they'd been worth it.
Thinking about that, she couldn't help smiling. They had been all over her the moment she'd closed and locked the door to her suite. No pretenses … they knew what she wanted, and she knew what they wanted, and everybody was happy.
Interestingly, there was no hint of 'brotherly love' among them. They touched each other as little as possible and then only for balance or support, concentrating their efforts solely – and splendidly! – on Godiva.
She stepped onto Ivan's bulging thigh and worked her other leg up until she had extended it over her own head. Had Fyodor been awake, he would have had quite a show. Her tail coiled around Dmitri, she grabbed Alyosha around the leg.
"Okay … one, two, three."
On three, she heaved and swiveled and pulled all at once, and the next thing she knew she was able to swing her other leg up and out, flip over, and drop to the floor. She hunkered there on hands and knees for a moment. She'd lost a few strands of hair that had been tangled on their horns, spurs, and ridges.
But she was out, and now she had one of the world's most unique modern art sculptures to decorate her room for the next fourteen or so hours.
She'd have to remember to set her clock from now on!
"And you're going to be strong,
right?" Liz Dorsett asked, the twinkle in her eyes belying the stern look
on her face.
"Resolute," Gabriel said.
"Better be," she said. "This is our exit."
The motor home, close to the largest size legally allowed on the highways and byways of America, slowed as she took the turn. They had driven from Montana, parking at truck stops and rest areas during the daylight hours so that Gabriel and Angus could rest undisturbed inside the vehicle while Liz and Jeannie Leister napped and took turns venturing out for food.
Of the four of them, Jeannie was the most nervous. Angus assured her repeatedly that she had nothing to worry about, that nobody at the Coventry was going to know what she was just by looking at her. She wasn't even a clone, not really. The child of two clones, okay, but …
Here, Angus' logic always fell apart.
Gabriel heard his brother falter in the rear compartment, and hid a rueful grin. Poor Angus. He had filled out over the past four years, thanks to the clean air, open skies, hearty diet, and healthy exercise regime that the gargoyles and the dinos both enjoyed.
"But you said that this Godiva knew the original Anton Sevarius," fretted Jeannie. "What if she recognizes me?"
"Fear not," Gabriel said. "Godiva hardly ever bothers to so much as look at other females."
They crested a rise, and the demarcation took Gabriel's breath away. Before, nothing but desert stretching off in all directions, no signs of civilization except for the black scar of the road. The glow in the sky could have been mistaken for daybreak. But then, there it was. Las Vegas, clustered in the darkness like a pile of jewels.
Jeannie, who had only ever seen the city on television, crowded to the front of the motor home and leaned over Gabriel's shoulder to peer through the windshield. Like Angus, she had reached her adult growth, becoming a tall and slim young lady with clear skin and bright, intelligent eyes.
"Hey, sit down, you want us to get a ticket?" Liz scolded.
A sisterly affection had sprung up between the two. Liz had taught Jeannie to drive, ski, fish, ride, and shoot. In return, and with the help of a sophisticated computer and lab equipment that Jim Dorsett had reluctantly allowed them to install in one of the outbuildings, Jeannie had done a few favors of her own for Liz.
She sat down and buckled up, her quick mind already off and running to worry about something else. "Are you sure the dinos didn't mind staying at the ranch?"
"It's what they want," Gabriel said. "They are not yet ready to face the rest of the world."
"Or have the project track them down," Jeannie said, chewing on her lip.
"The project can't touch them," Liz said. "Jim may seem like a flake, but he knows what he's doing. They'll be fine. It's their home now."
"I guess," she sighed, and propped her chin on her hands.
"What?" Angus asked.
"Well, they've got one. Lucky them. A home, I mean."
"You miss your parents," Angus said. "Is that it?"
"No … not really, not my parents. Sam, though. I hope he's okay. I know he's not really my brother. Genetically, he's sort of … sort of my son, I guess … but –"
"But genetically, it doesn't matter," Liz said. "In your heart, he's your brother, and that's important."
"And I'll never see him again, never know what happened to him." Jeannie, whose moods could be mercurial, shook off her brief melancholy and leaned across to kiss Angus on the cheek. "At least I get to meet the rest of your family!"
Gabriel reflected what an odd pair they were. Angus, who, once the storms of adolescence had passed, had turned out level-headed and chronically relaxed, taking the world as it came. And Jeannie, a young genius who spoke thirty languages and would have qualified for degrees in almost any science, whose restless mind was always on the move.
They entered the city, a dazzle of lights spilling through the tinted glass. Liz had to take a detour around a block that was closed off for the filming of a movie, but eventually she pulled into the RV lot behind the Coventry. The four of them got out, looking up at the pseudo-Tudor architecture and an enormous hologramatic sign advertising the new act.
Coldfire had written to him about it, but Gabriel hadn't really believed it until this moment. A performing aerobat gargoyle troupe … it sounded preposterous to him. But the sign depicted two males springing onto the shoulders of two other males, then a small female tumbled through the air and landed on their shoulders to complete a sort of pyramid.
"Here we are," said Liz, and now it was she, instead of Jeannie, who sounded nervous.
"All will be well," Gabriel promised, putting an arm around her.
"And you're staying strong."
"What about you, Angus?" Jeannie asked.
He jumped, blushed purple, and looked guilty. "Me? Hey, I was never involved with her."
"Not for lack of trying," Gabriel said.
"I was a stupid kid then, okay? I know better now."
"From the sounds of it, older and wiser men than you still don't know better," Liz said.
"Yeah, well, they just need to have Gabriel beat some sense into them."
"According to Coldfire's last letter, everything is different now," Gabriel said
Still, it was his turn for an attack of the nerves as they entered the Coventry's palatial Elizabethan lobby. Coldstone and Coldfire could be watching them on the security monitors already. That wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to see them face to face, tell them in person.
Some double-takes followed them as they crossed the large open space. Liz tensed, and almost shrugged away Gabriel's arm. He glanced down at her questioningly.
She firmed her jaw, took his wrist, and held him where he was. "I have to get used to it all over again, now more than ever," she said. "It wasn't such a big deal back home, where everybody knows me. Weird that I should be more worried about what total strangers think."
"I've never seen anything like this place," gasped Jeannie. "Except on television and the computer. It's a lot bigger than it looks in virtual reality. A lot more …"
"Real?" Angus asked.
"Wow." Jeannie's blue-grey eyes went wide.
Descending the sweeping staircase, engrossed in conversation, were several figures. Among them was Godiva, and clearly it was she to whom Jeannie's 'wow' referred. Gabriel felt a tightening in his gut.
"Ease up on the shoulder, would you?" Liz whispered out of the side of her mouth.
He loosened his grip the tiniest fraction. Godiva was even more stunning than he remembered, her hair piled and dangling in ringlets like a Greek goddess, her figure swathed in cloudy black shot with threads of gold, blue, and silver. But something about her face had changed. He couldn't put a talon on just what was different.
Maybe it was the company she was keeping. A quartet of grey gargoyles, in glossy black loincloths hanging from gold belts, followed and surrounded her like an honor guard. Bringing up the rear was a female, obviously related.
Behind the group, he recognized Hoshi, and Ohta, both smiling and waving in welcome. The whole clan coming out to greet them. Except …
"Where are --?"
Coldstone's voice. He turned to face her. Coldfire was at his side. Despite the bells and whistles from the casino, Gabriel clearly heard Jeannie's throat click as she swallowed. Liz took a deep breath.
"What's this, a cozy family reunion?" Godiva asked, sashaying toward them with her devoted admirers in tow.
They were all so fit, muscular, athletic, and toned that even Gabriel, who'd spent the past four years leading a rugged outdoor life, felt scrawny by comparison.
"Hello, Godiva," he said.
"Gabe." She tossed her head. "Welcome back. And Angus. How you've grown. Well, I'm sure you've got a lot of catching up to do, so I'll run through the introductions."
She rattled off a string of names, giving doting looks to each of the four males as she did so, and Gabriel knew what was different. For the first time since he'd met her, Godiva's reactions seemed genuine, not calculated and sultry, but genuinely cheerful and at ease.
"And this is Sonia," she added, indicating the female. "You remember Hoshi and Ohta. So, who are these lovely ladies?"
"This is Liz," Gabriel said, taking her hand. "Liz Dorsett."
Strangely, as much as he had been dreading this moment, he found himself almost disappointed at Godiva's utter lack of challenge, spite, or jealousy. She was completely captivated by her new conquests, and in her mind, Gabriel had ceased to be of interest.
"This is Jeannie," Angus said, still keeping a wary eye on Coldstone's glower. He almost said more, almost introduced her as his girlfriend, but thought better of it.
Jeannie excitedly greeted the grey gargoyles in Russian. Here, Gabriel noticed a new complication – the female, Sonia, was sneaking peeks at Angus.
"Well, aren't we all just one happy clan," laughed Godiva. She blew air-kisses at Gabriel and Angus. "We'll leave you to your parents."
With that, she and her entourage crossed to the casino, leaving Gabriel and Angus gaping identically after them. It couldn't be real. It was too good to be true.
Coldfire's face didn't change, but the relief emanating from her was as palpable as a breeze. It was tempered by doubt as she turned to study Liz.
"Mother, Father," Gabriel said, the words still coming harder for him than they did for Angus. "Will you accept this female as my mate?"
The pause stretched out for so long that he was sure they were going to deny him. And what then? Back to Montana? Probably. He didn't care where he lived, so long as he had Liz by his side. If his parents could not accept that, it was their problem, and not his.
"If it's the breeding thing," Jeannie said diffidently, "I can fix that."
"What?" snarled Coldstone, looming over her. "Are you a scientist?" His tone made the word an oath.
Angus put himself between them. "Not all science is bad, Father. And Jeannie's the best, she really is."
"Wait, wait, explain," said Coldfire. "Explain this. What do you mean?"
The instant she began outlining her theories, all of Jeannie's nervousness fell away and she came truly animated and alive. The technical terms soon left them all in the dust, but her conviction shone through in every word and enthusiastic gesture.
She caught herself. "Sorry … I get carried away. But it will work. I'm sure of it. That's one reason why we wanted to move here. Better access to labs, libraries, equipment."
"You are willing to do this?" Coldstone asked Gabriel, in a forbidding tone.
"Well …" He cast a glance at Liz.
"It's what I want," she said. "I want kids. Gabriel's kids. And he's told me how much you were looking forward to grandchildren."
This was addressed to Coldfire. Speechless, she only emitted a whirring oscillation.
"Jeannie can do what she says," Angus said. "I know she can."
"But …" Coldfire floundered, then found her voice. "Isn't it dangerous?"
"I'm ready to take the risk," Liz said.
"Are you, Gabriel? You've lost so much …"
"Mother," he said, and it was easier now. "I have, yes. And yes, I am afraid. But I trust Jeannie, and I love Liz, and if it is what she wants, it is what I want."
"It might take a few years," Jeannie warned. "Setting up the lab, getting the samples, splicing a viable embryo, the implantation process … that's where I see the most difficulty, since the biochemistry is so wonderfully different, the diverse physiological needs of the mother and child … uh, sorry again. It's just all so interesting!"
"Well?" Gabriel pressed. "Will you accept her?"
"Traditionally," hedged Coldstone, "as nominal leader of the clan the decision would belong to –"
"Yes," Coldfire said. "We accept."
Las Vegas, Nevada
"You tricked me, didn't you?"
Coldfire, who had been scanning the same page of a magazine without really reading it, looked up. "What?"
Godiva wagged a finger at her. "Five years ago. You did that on purpose. Bringing them here. Knowing that they'd distract me from your precious sons."
"Hoshi made the arrangements."
"Yes, but it was your idea."
"No, it was her suggestion."
"Which you went along with."
"Perhaps," admitted Coldfire.
"It worked nicely."
"When their contract came up for renegotiation, there was never a question of whether they'd stay or not. In my mind or theirs."
"You never liked me much, Coldfire, did you?"
"Better now than before."
"You thought I was a heartless bitch."
Coldfire said nothing, turned a page.
"Which," Godiva said, "I suppose I was. For someone who'd always prided herself on her brains, I never really stopped to think about what being Godiva meant to me. And what it meant to everybody else. Now, look what you've done."
"What I've done?"
"You made me think. You turned my glorious Coventry into an actual home, and the next thing you know, we'll have to put up with the pitter-patter of little talons."
"The rookery was not my doing," Coldfire said. "Attribute that to Hoshi and Sonia."
"I'm sure that Angus had something to do with it," she said pointedly.
Coldfire dipped her head in a nod. "Well, yes."
She had privately been overjoyed when Angus had announced his intention to take not one, but two mates. Luckily, both Sonia and Jeannie were so busy with their respective occupations of aerobat and scientist that he wasn't stretched too thin trying to be mate to them both. The hatching of the eggs – Hoshi's two, Sonia's one, and all girls by the mottling on the shells – was still seven years away.
"Anyway," Godiva said, "thank you."
Taken completely by surprise, Coldfire could only look at her.
"For tricking me, and making me happy. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you like me a little better now. That's good. There's no reason why we shouldn't be friends."
Still nonplussed, Coldfire was glad of the interruption as the door swung open. Seeing not Jeannie with a progress report, but a proudly beaming Gabriel, she shot to her feet. He was tenderly carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle in his arms, and gazing down as if he held the very moon and stars.
"Mother," Gabriel said, offering her the bundle.
She took it gingerly, feeling the warm and living weight of her grandchild.
The little face, pink with a green-grey undertinge, was framed by the buds of adorable little curlicue horns and chin spurs. Like hers. Like Gabriel's. She folded back the blanket, drinking in the sight of the infant. So small, so helpless! The wings were batlike, the tail, like those of Coldstone and Angus, ended in a solid ball of bone. The baby had Liz's eyes and her dark red hair, which already promised to be as wild and unmanageable.
"Amber will be pleased," Gabriel said. "She's not the only one anymore."
"He's beautiful, Gabriel," she said. "He's perfect. What will you call him?"
"Lysander," he said. "It means 'liberator,' is a name from a play about Oberon and Titania, and it echoes the name of his mother."
"Cute," Godiva said, taking a quick look and wrinkling her nose. She shook her head. "Just don't let him trash my hotel when he starts to walk, all right?" With a flip of her hair and a swing of her tail, she strode away.
"She'll warm to him," Coldfire said, touching the baby's five-fingered hand. Lysander cooed and gurgled spit bubbles. "I would not have thought it, Gabriel, but even Godiva turned out to have a heart."
July 2003 Christine Morgan ** firstname.lastname@example.org **