We wait. We can't yet afford to openly challenge the Psy Council. But be ready to take advantage of any mistakes. As for the changelings, they're focused on the Council. They won't expect us. We're no threat, after all.
- Encrypted e-mail sent from the sunken city of Venice to unknown number of recipients in San Francisco
"Human?" Dorian asked, recalling the Rats' tip about humans asking after Ashaya.
"No. Like her."
"They get anything?"
The boy looked insulted. "Hell, no."
"Watch the language, Jimmy. I know your mother."
The teenager rolled his eyes. "They asked about your sexy girlfriend" - a mischievous grin - "but it's amazing how many people are shortsighted around here. Man, it's like an epidemic or something."
"Maybe we should hire an optometrist," Dorian said dryly.
"If you do, tell the doc the shortsightedness comes on without warning, and seems to affect dozens of people at a time." Grinning, Jimmy glanced down the street. "Some traffic coming up. Anyway, we'll let you know if they come back." He slipped away, merging expertly into the energetic bustle of Chinatown.
Dorian rolled up his window and continued through the intersection. "No surprise they're hunting you."
"No." She wrapped her arms around herself. A betraying gesture if he hadn't already known her Silence for a sham. "You didn't pay the boy for his information," she said. "Isn't that how it works?"
"Not here." He turned down a narrow street lined with tea merchants on either side. "We're part of Chinatown. We take care of them, they take of us."
"They can't be bought?"
"The relationship's had over a decade to mature - the people round here know they can count on us when the shit hits the fan. We've busted heads for them, tracked down missing children, dragged others back to face judgment." He shrugged. "So no, they can't be bought. We're family."
"But only Pack is family for you."
He reached over and ran his knuckles down the curve of her neck. A fleeting touch, but it took the edge off the escalating depth of his need. "Pack is family," he said, knowing it was no longer a question of if, but when he'd have Ashaya in his bed. "But we can widen the net if we choose. And we stand by those who stand by us.
"Plus, some of them are Pack." Dorian had first met Ria on these streets. Fully human, the vivacious brunette was now Lucas's personal assistant and mated to a DarkRiver leopard. But the night Dorian had first seen her, she'd been crawling backward on her hands and feet in a dark alleyway, face bloodied and shirt ripped.
Her parents had fallen foul of some would-be shakedown artist and he'd decided to use her to teach them a lesson. A few years older at the time than Kit was now, Dorian had taken one look, picked the creep up, and thrown him against the nearest wall. It happened to be old-fashioned brick. The bastard had had twenty broken bones when they peeled him off the ground. "Who do you stand by, Shaya?"
The answer was unexpected. "Keenan, Amara, and a handful of others."
"Good answer," he said, conscious of the leopard padding restlessly around the cage of his body. The hunger to shift, to release the other half of his soul, was a familiar ache - the leopard had never truly understood that it couldn't get out.
Thankfully, Ashaya spoke then. "Was it a test?" The blue ice and wild honey of her voice wrapped around the cat, soothing it into settling down.
"Don't worry. You passed." He shot her a grim look. "The Council didn't have to resort to medical torture to hold you - you would've done it for the love of Keenan."
"Yes. But they don't comprehend love."
He turned the car into the wide-open goods entrance of an empty warehouse. Behind them, the door rolled down. He knew that within two minutes, the street outside would be covered with market stalls selling anything from fresh produce to touristy shtick.
One time Aaron had lost his mind and put up a stall selling those yapping dog robots that drove Dorian insane. The younger male hadn't made that mistake again. And he'd become damn smooth at his job. No one saw a twenty-one-year-old DarkRiver soldier when they saw Aaron. They saw a slender Asian teenager with a bright smile who drove a hard bargain. That reminded Dorian - he needed to talk to Lucas about Aaron. It was time to move him up the security hierarchy.
"Zie Zen," Ashaya said, staring through the windshield to the man who sat in a chair in the middle of the warehouse, his hand on a cane.
There were several DarkRiver men and women in the warehouse, but no one disturbed his solitude. Zie Zen's face was sharp, lined with age but not fragile. Instead, there was a honed strength in it. Dorian found himself judging the other man and finding him a worthy opponent. But he was far too old. "You chose him as the father of your child? Why?"
Ashaya stopped with her hand on the door handle. "It's not sexual in the way of changelings. Zie Zen had the best genes."
"Wait," he said when she would've exited. "According to our sources, he's a powerful man - why did he let them take Keenan?"
Her hand tightened on the handle. "Zie Zen has other biological children - going up against a Council order mandating 'specialized instruction' for a single child, a child without any exceptional psychic abilities, and one for whom he isn't the custodial parent, would've rung serious alarm bells."
"Let me guess - a true Psy would simply write that child off as a bad investment?"
A nod. "However, his position meant the Councilors treaded softly - they didn't want to make an enemy out of him when they could keep things trouble-free by allowing him his rights under the co-parenting agreement, and acceding to his request that I continue to train Keenan."