"Uhhh is not an answer," Keira informed me.
Andrea must not have told her about Hugh, and I had no desire to explain who my dad was. "We never met but we were trained by the same person. Now he works for a very powerful man who will kill me if he finds me."
"Why?" Keira asked.
"It's a family thing."
"That explains the attraction," Aunt B said.
"You're that thing he can't have. It's called forbidden fruit."
"I'm not his fruit!"
"He thinks you are. The word you're looking for is 'smitten,' my dear." Aunt B smiled. "I'm sure the way Megobari looked at you made Curran positively giddy."
Hearing his name was like being burned. "Will you stop meddling in my love life?" I growled.
"I'm not meddling. I'm offering commentary."
Ugh. "I just want to go home."
"Not until we get all of the panacea we've been promised." Aunt B adjusted her hat. "You have no idea what it's like to lose a child to loupism. True, you've endured Julie's tragedy, but I had given birth to my babies. I nursed them, I nurtured them from the time they were tiny and helpless, I fanned the tiny flames of their potential. I had so many dreams for them. Children think you are a god. You are the center of their universe, you can fix anything, you can shield them and protect them, and then one day they find out you can't. I remember the look in my sons' eyes before I killed them. They thought they were abandoned. That I had betrayed them. Raphael will not go through this. Not if I can help it."
Her voice told me that the wound was still there. It had formed a scab over the years, but Aunt B still mourned her dead children. When she told me that she came on this trip to keep an eye on me, it was a white lie. She had come here for panacea and she would do anything to get it. The one bag she'd earned wouldn't be enough. I thought of Maddie in the glass coffin. I couldn't blame Aunt B. I would do anything to spare my child this kind of pain.
If I didn't have children with Curran, I wouldn't have to worry about it.
Wow. I wasn't even sure where that came from.
"I'm glad this Volodja came to you," Aunt B said.
"Why?" My fight must've made a bigger impression than I thought.
"Because some Abkhazians speak Russian. They're neighbors. You're the only one in our group who can translate in a pinch."
And here I thought she was awed by my incredible martial skills. One deflated ego? Check.
We went through the streets. Abandoned houses stared at us with empty windows, shells of their former selves. On the wall of an empty apartment building, little more than a gutted carcass of concrete and steel, someone had drawn a pair of angel wings. Hope for a better future, or a memory of someone who died. We would never know.
"That must be the statue." Keira pointed to a bronze djigit on a horse. It rose in the middle of a small plaza. Behind it sat a small cafe.
Aunt B inhaled. "We should go this way." She made a beeline for the cafe. "He is a werejackal. He'll find our scent."
The cafe sat in the shade of a huge walnut tree, a turquoise-blue building that had seen better days.
"Bakery," Keira announced.
You don't say. I grinned. Back home Aunt B preferred to conduct her business over a platter of cupcakes or a slice of pie.
"Is something funny?" Aunt B asked.
"We crossed half the planet and you found a bakery."
"I don't see the humor in that."
Keira laughed under her breath.
"You're supposed to look menacing," Aunt B told her. "You're Eduardo's stand-in."
"Yes," I agreed. "Less laughing, more looming."
Keira crossed her arms and pretended to scowl.
"We should've brought the werebuffalo," Aunt B said.
We walked into the cafe. An older woman with gray hair smiled at us from behind the long counter and called out in a lilting language. Aunt B pointed to some things, money was exchanged, and suddenly we were sitting at a table with some pastries filled with apricots. We had been sitting still for about fifteen minutes when the kid walked through the door. He carried a rifle. A backpack hung off his shoulder. He saw Aunt B and Keira and halted.
"You have friends."
"It's okay. Did you bring the money?"
"We did," Aunt B assured him.
"Are you ready?" Volodja asked.
"Ready if you are," Aunt B said.
* * *
The steep trail curved south, away from the castle. Blackberry bushes flanked the path, stretching thorny branches across the gravel and dirt. Our guide hadn't said a word since we left the city behind about an hour ago. I did my best to turn my brain off and concentrate on memorizing the way back. Thinking about anything inevitably led back to Curran. I wanted to stab something. Failing that, I wanted to pace around. None of that would be helpful. Emotional raging just tired you out.
"How do you know where the orange shapeshifters nest?" I asked. Any distraction in a pinch . . .
"I've seen them." Volodja shrugged, adjusting the rifle on his shoulder. "It's not far now."
I couldn't wait to find out who pulled his strings.
"Come on, dear," Aunt B said. "Where is your spirit of adventure?"
Midway up the trail, the magic wave drowned us. We paused, adjusting, and moved on.
One hour later the trail brought us up onto the crest of the mountain. Straight ahead the sea sparkled. Behind us, low in the valley, lay the city. A tall cliff rose to the left and within it gaped a dark hole.
"Cave," Volodja explained. "We go in."
Volodja took a step forward. The bushes on our right rustled. A dark-haired man stepped in the open. Around thirty, with a short beard, he carried a rifle and a dagger and wore a beat-up version of a djigit outfit. A bundle lay across his shoulder with mountain goat legs sticking out of it. A big gray-and-white dog trotted out and sat next to him. Broad and muscular, she had a dense shaggy coat. She might have been some type of Molosser-she looked like someone took a Saint Bernard and gave it a German shepherd's muzzle and coat.
The hunter squinted at Volodja and said something. The kid answered.
The hunter waved his free arm. I wished I had a universal translator.
"What is he saying?" I asked.
"He is . . . crazy." Volodja put his index finger to his temple and turned his hand back and forth.
The hunter barked something. The dog at his feet woofed quietly. I missed Grendel. I wished I could've brought him. Maybe he'd bite Hugh and Curran for me.