Greg smiled when he saw Adele standing behind her father. “They are alright.”
“She told you they were.” Yala sat down next to him, and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Seeing is a bit different.” Greg exhaled, then shifted to put an arm around Yala. He glanced at the door to the other room. “I mean, I believed her, I just…” He took a deep breath. “It’s been a long day.”
“Tell me again what Jim said.” Yala brushed Greg’s hair off his shoulder.
“That you have to claim your throne no matter the cost.” He couldn’t quite look at Yala when he said the words. Yala claiming a throne would mean an end to something that had started to become very precious to him. “That if you don’t…”
“If I do not…” Yala lifted his head. “Saelethil will.” His fists clenched. “Jim just left you there.” He stood. “Just…” He growled. “Left you in Xue’s hands. With men willing to torture you and watch you die.”
“He said he didn’t have a choice.” Greg started to stand.
Yala grabbed him, pulled him into an embrace, and kissed him. Greg moved his hand to the back of Yala’s neck as he returned the kiss, savoring it. He doubted they were going to have much more time together, and from the tension in Yala’s grip he knew it too. Yala’s fingers went through his hair, and he made another soft growling sound. “I won’t abandon you.”
“You have to go back, Yala.” He touched his forehead to Yala’s.
“Not until I know you are safe.” Yala caressed his cheek. “And it will not be forever. You have a boat, you said.” He swallowed. “We can visit.”
“That would break the laws of your people.” They turned to see Mbaba standing there, holding a tray of food. Her voice was gentle, and her eyes sympathetic. She gave a small shake of her head. “I know what you feel for him, Yalathanil. I have felt it before. It is how your father came to exist.” She glanced at Greg, and gave him the smallest of nods before looking back at Yalathanil. “He is human. You are not.”
“It doesn’t…” Yalathanil started shaking his head.
“Greg…” Her eyes went to him again. “Ask him how old he is.”
“Why is that…” He trailed off as he stared at her, then he turned toward Yala. “I —”
“I don’t know.” Yala exhaled, his eyes half-closed. “I do not understand how you mark the passing of time.”
“Yalathanil was born over four hundred years ago.” Mbaba set the tray down. “It will be nearly two thousand more before he needs to fear the passage of time.” She took a deep breath. “Despite such longevity, his people are few. They withdrew from the surface because the alternative was their utter destruction, as befell the other shepherds.” She leaned on the table, then give a small shake of her head. Her eyes closed for a moment, then reopened. “Treasure the next few days.” She smiled, then reached up to brush a little of Greg’s hair back from his face. “And then say your farewells.”
“Anything?” Adele peeked through the doorway.
Natalya looked down at her phone. “Nothing.” She let herself fall back on the bed as Adele came all the way in. “Phil arranged people to search near the coast, just in case they are hurt and holed up somewhere, but we don’t have any way of letting Greg know the cops are safe to approach.” She sat up a little as Adele sat on the side of the bed next to her. “How did your mom take the news?”
“Well, according to her assistant…” Adele twitched a shoulder. “She actually fainted.” She looked down at her shoes. “Dad’s concerned that I might have to get poked and prodded by doctors in some attempt to figure out how it happened. He offered to arrange for us some seclusion somewhere until things die down.”
“You would be wise to take him up on that offer.” They both jumped and let out small squeals at the sound of the third voice. The woman who spoke was exotically beautiful, with the darkest skin Natalya had ever seen. She inclined her head. “Yalathanil said you will know my name. I am Mbaba.”
“You…” Natalya blinked. “As in his grand…” She put her hands over her mouth as pieces started to click. “It was you. You attacked the ship.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “Thank you both, for aiding my grandson.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “Greg and Yalathanil are safe. They will be in touch with you soon.”
“That’s good to know.” Adele’s voice quavered just a little. “Thank you.”
“I have some questions, if you don’t mind.”
“No, we don’t.” Natalya sat all the way up. “Uh, can I get you some coffee or uh…” She winced. What exactly did one offer a… “Anything?”
“Coffee…” Mbaba’s smile was warm. “Would be wonderful, thank you.”
She stood and started fixing the coffee pot, mostly to occupy her hands and keep them from shaking. Adele was pale. “What did you want to know? We can tell you all about Xue and…”
“Do you have a means of contacting Jim Gordon?” Mbaba folded her arms.
“You want…” Adele’s eyes widened. “To know about Jim?”
“That’s…” Natalya closed the top of the coffee maker, and turned it on. “Why?”
“I would like to confirm a suspicion I have.” Mbaba lifted her chin just slightly.
“Look…” Adele stood. “I appreciate what you did and well, who you are, but Jim is my friend.” She shook her head. “I’m not telling you anything until you tell me why you want to know.” She met Mbaba’s eyes.
“Did Yalathanil tell you what I am?” Mbaba arched an eyebrow.
“Yes.” Adele held Mbaba’s gaze, her voice calm and steady. “And like I just said. Jim is my friend. What does a dragon want with him?”
“Adele…” Natalya stared at her friend, feeling a slight sense of rising dread. Mbaba had dragged a ship around the lake like it was a toy wagon.
“You have a means of contacting him.” Mbaba’s eyes narrowed. The slight tightening of Adele’s eyes was enough to prove Mbaba was correct. “Do so. Tell him I am here.”
It was really hard to shake off the woman’s gaze and the compulsion to do exactly as she was told. Adele held Mbaba’s eyes until the feeling had passed and the woman was starting to frown. Then she took her phone out of her pocket, and dialed the number Jim had given in his text. His voice answered on the second ring. “Adele. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so —”
“Mbaba is here.” Adele cut him off.
Jim was silent for a moment. Then his voice was quiet. “Oh.”
“She —” Adele blinked as the line went dead. She looked at the phone, then shrugged. “Guess he —”
“You shouldn’t be here.” The sound of Jim’s voice was followed by the sound of the coffee cup Natalya had just picked up hitting the ground as it slid out of her fingers. He was there. Standing in the room with them, a few feet in front of the door that was quite clearly still bolted from the inside. Adele swallowed.
“If you had not involved yourself…” Ice dripped from Mbaba’s voice as she glared at him. “My involvement would not have been necessary.” She stared at Jim.
Jim stared back for only a couple heartbeats before he dropped his gaze. Then he gave a small shake of his head. “If he learns you —”
“Yalathanil is my grandson, calling upon my favor. I am well within my rights to answer him.”
“I know you are within your rights…” Jim exhaled. “It’s the fact you took action at all. If his attention falls upon you…” He sighed, then raised his eyes again. “I thought if I gave them a little aid he wouldn’t have need to call upon you.”
“You, on the other hand, had no rights to involve yourself. Sharing the dryads got you out of trouble once, child.” She lowered her arms. “It will not do so again.”
“Uh…” Adele looked from one to the other. “I think we are missing a few things here.” She turned to face the man standing a few feet from her. “Jim?”
“It’s…” He sighed, then looked back at Mbaba. “Did you get Greg out alright?”
“You allowed —” Her voice hardened.
“I know.” Jim raised his voice slightly. “I know. It was my fault, and I owe him.” He took a deep breath, then gave a small laugh before turning to look her in the eye. Adele stared as Jim’s features suddenly shifted. The slender young man was replaced by a tall, sturdily built man who would not have looked out of place on a Viking warship. He gave her a slightly abashed smile. “I apologize, Adele. Natalya. I should have stood aside and let you handle things. I fear I only complicated matters.”
“What…” Natalya stared
“The…” Adele felt her own eyes bulge out of her face.
“Hell?” Natalya finished.
Natalya sat, her hand on Adele’s shoulder. Two. Not one. Two. Two dragons were in their hotel suite. Dragons. It had happened. She had gone mad. Adele hadn’t taken her eyes off Ji… Jormun since he’d shapeshifted. She’d thought she had a handle on the whole shapeshifting thing after seeing Yala do it a few times, but seeing a man change from one face to another had been disturbing on a completely different level. His voice even sounded different. Deeper, and definitely more masculine. “…clean up matters —”
“You will do nothing of the sort.” Mbaba cut Jormun off again, as she had almost every time he’d tried explaining, offering, or for that matter, just talking. “The girls and their young police officer have already handled much of the matter. You will allow them to fill their role. They cannot be traced back to you.”
“He will know you were involved. You had to expend power at the lake to —”
“Jormun.” Her voice was sharp enough Natalya was a little surprised Jormun wasn’t actively bleeding. She stared at him a moment, then sighed. “Child, you’ve been fighting a long time. There is a time for swords, and a time for diplomacy. The ladies and I have matters in hand.” Natalya felt her stomach sink a little when she realized she and Adele were the ‘ladies’ Mbaba was referencing. Mbaba took a step forward, and touched Jormun’s cheek before frowning, fixing his collar, and dusting a speck of something off his shoulder.
“We agreed I was the expendable one.” He bowed his head, his voice low.
“We agreed to nothing of the sort, dear boy.” Mbaba smiled before leaning forward to kiss his forehead. “I simply chose not to waste time arguing with you on the matter.” Her smile became warm.
“It’s safer if I am the one that draws his eyes, Mbaba. As long as he focuses on me…” Jormun sighed. “He knows I’m too weak to challenge him. All he’ll do is slap me down.”
“It’s a little late for that now. This is a family matter, and if he does do anything that would reveal his direct involvement, he risks stirring the others against him.” She patted his cheek. “Now, you owe my grandson an apology as well. Go, and then get back to your territory.”
“Yes, Mbaba.” He gave a small ghost of a smile. Then he glanced toward them, his eyes focused on Adele. “I still need to return your kitten.”
“Yeah.” Adele stood. “You do.” She took a couple steps forward. Then, to Natalya’s shock, Adele raised her hand and slapped him across the face. “That’s for lying to me.”
He reached his hand up to touch where she’d slapped him, and Natalya saw Mbaba try to hide an amused look. Then Jormun smiled. “Adele…” He laughed softly. “I think I’ll hang on to your number.” Then he vanished, as though he’d never been there at all.
“Well…” Mbaba barely managed to hide a snicker. “Let’s go over what remains to settle matters, shall we?” She raised an eyebrow at Natalya. “I believe you were making coffee.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She leaped up to get a mug.