"What is that?"
A balding middle-aged man with a teamster badge on his leather vest turned to me. "The Fish Market Fish."
"The bronze sculpture in front of the Fish Market?"
"Used to be bronze."
"How did it get here from Buckhead?"
"There was a river," a woman on my left said. "I saw it from the window."
"The ground's dry," the teamster pointed out.
"I'm telling you I saw a river. You could see clear through the waves. Like it was made out of ghosts. Never seen nothing like that."
The teamster spat into the dirt. "Yeah, well, we'll see worse before the flare's over."
We stood to the side, away from the crowd, and watched the fish being hoisted up.
"You can't leave me," Julie declared.
Considering our earlier conversation, I would've thought she'd jump at the chance to get me out of her hair. "I want you to think back to when the reeves came."
"The reeves are out there. They want you for something and they won't give up. Put yourself in place of your mom. Would you let your daughter tag along with some weirdo woman who is going out to hunt reeves or would you want your baby to be safe?"
Her face fell. "You're not my mom. You can't tell me what to do," she said finally, but her tone signaled the end of the argument.
"I'm a substitute mom," I told her.
"You're more like a crazy aunt who only gets called when somebody needs bailing out of jail," Derek said.
I pointed my finger at him. He grinned.
"Julie, until I find your real mom, I'm in charge of your safety. She loves you and she's a good person. She deserves to be found and to have you be alright. If I found her, but something happened to you, I don't know what I would do." And if I can't find your mom, she would've wanted you to be safe.
At the other end of the intersection, Andrea appeared, riding a bay gelding and leading three horses.
I WOULD'VE LIKED TO GALLOP ALL THE WAY TO THE Order, but the traffic was heavy. The city knew deep magic would hit soon, and while the tech was up, they made the best of it. We had to settle for a slow trot.
Andrea rode in the lead, Julie behind her, clutching the reins with white-knuckled panic, and Derek and I brought up the rear. I wanted Derek and Andrea separated as much as possible. When your partner goes loup and tries to turn your stomach into an all-you-can-eat buffet while you're still breathing, you might develop a slight dislike of shapeshifters. Why tempt fate?
"He's actually quite patient," Derek said, drawing even with me.
I nodded. "He's patient as long as everyone plays by his rules."
"That's not true. You've never seen him when he isn't under pressure."
"Being the Beast Lord, I'd imagine he's always under pressure." I sighed. "I didn't mean to aggravate him. It was a matter of bad timing. He was pumped up full of adrenaline after working out, which made him more aggressive than usual. It was the wrong time to bring it up. That's all." That and I couldn't control my mouth in his vicinity. He got under my skin.
"It's the flare, too," he added. "Makes it harder to restrain yourself."
"Look, if you want I'll try to smooth things over if I get another opportunity." Ha! Fat chance of that. After that blowup, I was probably persona non grata in the Pack for life.
I didn't breathe easy until we dismounted in the Order's parking lot.
I swung the door open and motioned Julie inside. "Second floor, my office is first on the left, should be unlocked." She ducked in.
I filled Andrea in on the problem of Julie's missing mom, the reeves, and Hood, a.k.a. Bolgor the Shepherd, while we stabled the horses. Derek stood guard by the Order's door, but I was pretty sure he heard every word. Wolf ears worked much better than human ones, and his were exceptional. "Fomorians," she said. "What's the world coming to?"
"Three things: what are they doing here, why do they want Julie, and what happened to her mom?"
Andrea shook her head. "I have no clue. But then it's not my area. I shoot. I make gadgets work. I'm good with post-Shift resonance theory. Ask me something about folklore, and I draw a blank every time." She grinned. "But I'll keep your girl safe."
"I'm sorry to dump this on you."
She glanced at Derek. "I wish everyone would stop walking on eggshells around me. It needs doing, so I'll do it. I have to stay at the Chapter anyway: it's standard procedure during a flare for one knight to always be present. I'll guard your girl."
I hesitated. If anyone could help me in this situation, it was Andrea. She was a picture-perfect knight and she knew every regulation ever written.
"What's up?" she asked, as if reading my thoughts.
"Should I write up a petition for safe asylum?"
Andrea frowned. "Worried about the Danger to Humanity clause?"
The good thing about the petition for safe asylum was that any and all knights would protect Julie from any threat, as long as she remained in their custody. But by signing the petition, Julie placed herself into the Order's care, which meant she fell under the imminent danger clause. If she presented an imminent danger to humanity, the knights were duty bound to dispatch her. The Order wasn't in the habit of snuffing out little girls, but I knew that in Ted's mind, at least, the welfare of many outweighed the lives of the few. I had no clue as to why the reeves and the Shepherd hunted Julie. For all I knew, she was some sort of Fomorian-prophesied child destined to destroy the world. Stranger things have happened. I didn't want to find Julie with her throat slit. I'm sure they would make her end merciful and quick, but that hardly seemed like consolation.
Andrea smiled. "The good news is, you don't have to file one. She is an orphan with no known relatives. Under provision seventeen, you can assume temporary guardianship of her due to the fact she can't legally enter into contract. Fill out form 240-m, and she becomes your ward in the eyes of the Order. During the flare, all families of Order personnel can legally seek shelter at the nearest Chapter without being subject to the imminent danger clause. Unless she attacks, they have no authority to neutralize her."
"I don't know if she would sign something like that. She still thinks her mother is alive. And so do I." I hoped, anyway. "It might hammer some unpleasant possibilities home."
"You don't need her to sign. That's the beauty of it - all you need is the testimony of one knight besides yourself who agrees that you're acting in her best interests." She grinned from ear to ear. "And lucky you, you know one."