Changeling (Otherworld/Sisters of the Moon #2)

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05.03.2019

"May I help you?" Jill swung around, her smile infectious. She was holding a measuring tape and a piece of cloth that looked like the weaver had caught the Aurora borealis midripple.

"I'm here to pick up an outfit for Iris? Iris Kuusi." Iris used the Finnish surname that had belonged to the family to whom she'd been bound, until they all died out. She often told us stories about her days with them, usually when we were curled up near the fireplace with a big bowl of popcorn.

Jill tossed the tape on the counter along with the material. "Oh yes, she mentioned someone would be coming in today to pick it up. We've met, haven't we?" She extended her hand, and I took it, shaking lightly.

"Once, I came in with Iris when she ordered several custom-made aprons. I'm Delilah D'Artigo."

"Right! Her dress is ready to go. Hold on, and I'll be right back." She ducked into what looked like a back room the size of a closet and returned with a white box tied with a big red ribbon. A pewter unicorn charm dangled from the bow. "Here it is. Tell her to let me know if she needs any alterations. It was nice meeting you," she said, picking up the measuring tape again.

I could sense the busyness emanating off of her and picked up the box. The holidays had most people I'd met lately in a frazzle. "Have a lovely day," I said, meaning it.

"You, too," she called as I left the shop and headed out of the market.

The drive to Siobhan's condo took me right by Discovery Park, which consisted of over five hundred acres of protected meadows, thickets, and woodland situated on Magnolia Bluff. The park included two miles of shoreline designated as protected marine reserves.

Camille and I often came here to walk and think. The call of the gulls echoed along the tide flats, and it always seemed as though we could breathe easier while looking out over the bay toward the Olympic Mountains. I preferred to stay up in the woods, while Camille liked walking on the shore. The park was one big playground.

I navigated through the winding streets skirting the park, until I pulled to a stop in front of a two-story building. It had originally been a large house and was now divided into four different condominiums. Far from the chrome-and-glass towers going up around the city, Siobhan's home retained the flavor of an era gone by. The building had a homey feel, almost like a boardinghouse.

Jumping out of my Jeep, I headed toward the staircase on the right side of the building. There were two apartments on each floor, with stairs on either side of the building leading to the upper two residences.

The building needed a new paint job, that was for sure. Weathered from the winds and rain, paint flaked off the walls, but overall the place didn't look run-down so much as tired. Large shrubs and bushes surrounded the house, and ivy twined up the walls. Around back a patch of open lawn overlooked the bay.

I dashed up the stairs and knocked at a faded white door marked with the gold letters B-2. After a moment, the door opened. Siobhan stood there, tall and thin, with long black hair and pale skin. She was black Irish, and it showed. Dressed in a pale gray linen skirt and turtleneck, she reminded me of a shaft of moonlight streaming through the window on a cool autumn night.

"Hey, come in," she said, ushering me through the door. Siobhan moved like a shadow; one moment she'd be there, and the next she'd be on the other side of the room.

Her house was a reflection of her nature. Paintings of the sea, wild and foaming ocean waves, graced the walls. The sofa and love seat were a soft silver suede, and the wood gray and reminiscent of driftwood. Even the flowers she bought mirrored the colors of the ocean. All whites and pale violets with an occasional spray of pink interspersed among the roses and orchids.

"Would you care for something to eat?" she asked, holding out a tray of smoked salmon and crackers. My stomach rumbled, and I eagerly bit into an hors d'oeuvre, then wiped my mouth with a paper napkin. As we sat in the living room, overlooking the bay, I wondered how long she'd lived in the city. Earthside Fae were as long-lived as the Fae from Otherworld. Siobhan could be a hundred years old or five hundred.

"When did you first come to Seattle?" I asked, watching as the wind picked up, whipping the waves into white frenzied lines of sea foam.

She gave me a half smile. "I came over to Ellis Island a long time ago. I was barely into my maidenhood then, but I was ordered to leave my home and start new here."

I gave her an inquisitive look. "Why?"

"Our bloodline was, and is, wearing thin. Inbreeding has caused problems, and so the elders of the pod chose fifty of us, all younger members, to immigrate to the New World. They wanted us to establish a new life, to bring our bloodline across the ocean, and strengthen it with the blood of the North American Pacific selkies. They have the largest pods here in the world, you know."

I nodded. I knew all of the Earthside Weres were having problems due to inbreeding. As the human population grew, their own population shrank. Add in the difficulty in finding open territory, and it was causing havoc on their numbers.

"It's hard being an Earthside Were, isn't it?" I asked.

She nodded. "We don't have many options. Unlike other Fae, selkies have to mate with our own kind in order to produce offspring. It's not like the movies, where you're bitten by a werewolf and take on all the characteristics."

I nodded. Earthside, bitten Weres were sterile and far fewer in number than legends hinted at. In OW, it was the same way. And I, myself, would never bear a Were child because of my mixed blood, though I would have a child who was part Fae. My being a Were was a quirk of genetic scrambling and considered a birth defect among my father's people.

"So, our elders sent us across the ocean," she continued. "And I made my way over to the coast. But they should have sent someone else in my place. I can't get pregnant, and there aren't any healers here for my kind. Not of the caliber that I need." She sighed and raised her eyebrows. "I hoped to have pups, and my boyfriend has been patient, but there doesn't seem to be a family in the cards for us."

The catch in her voice made me want to put my arm around her and give her a hug. A thought occurred to me. "Listen, would you like me to talk to the OIA medics and see if they can examine you? They might be able to find out what's wrong. Your cover wouldn't be blown, and perhaps we could find out why you can't conceive."

Siobhan's eyes lit up, and for the first time since I'd known her, the faint ghost of a smile broke wide open. "Oh Delilah, that would mean so much to me. I love Mitch, and I hate to think of him finding another woman. Our numbers have dwindled to the point where all fertile selkies—of either sex—are expected to do their part to enlarge the gene pool. Mitch will be expected to impregnate another selkie if I can't have a child, and then he'd have to take her under his protection. Perhaps my association with humans is intruding on my nature, but I don't want to share him with anybody else."

"I can't promise anything, but I'll do everything I can," I said.

She settled back, beaming. "Now, what did you want to know about the Rainier Puma Pride?"

I finished off another salmon cracker and leaned forward, bracing my elbows on my knees. Staring at the floor, I said, "Zachary Lyonnesse came to see me at my office. I can't tell you why—that's confidential—but I just want to know a little bit about the reputation of the clan. What are they like? Do they have any enemies?"

Siobhan frowned in concentration. "The Rainier Pumas are an old clan. They stick to themselves a lot and are highly respected in the Were community. I can't think of anybody who doesn't like them, unless… There are two possibilities. There's a lesser Puma Pride over in eastern Washington. They resent the Rainier Pumas, but they aren't strong enough to challenge them. It's all about strength and cunning."

"Do you know their clan name?"

She squinted, staring out the window. After a moment she said, "I think they're the Icicle Falls Pride, but I'm not certain. But there's another possibility. There's one other group who consider the Pumas their enemies, though I haven't the faintest idea what they could have to argue about."

"And who is that?" I asked, pulling out my notebook.

She leaned close and whispered. "The grapevine has it that there have been some skirmishes between the Rainer Pumas and the Hunters Moon Clan. From what I understand, the antagonism has led to several deaths over the years. I don't know if they have a vendetta going on or not."

"The Hunters Moon Clan? Doesn't ring a bell. I assume they're Weres?"

She shivered as she crossed her arms in front of her. "They call themselves that, but they aren't natural Weres. There are rumors that say they derive their power from the evil shaman who created them over a thousand years ago. They're dark and treacherous and refuse to heed the rules of the Supe community, but they're so dangerous that nobody really wants to enforce the covenants between the tribes."

The room seemed to darken as she spoke, and a tingling in the back of my neck warned me that we were on slippery ground. We'd been so busy with getting adjusted to being Earthside and then with fighting Bad Ass Luke and his cronies that I'd ignored my inner promptings to collect information on the local Supe groups and build a database. In fact, Chase had given me the go-ahead and had promised full access to his files.

"A touchy situation, then. What are they like?"

Siobhan motioned for me to wait, then went to the door and peeked out. After a moment, she closed it and locked it behind her, inhaling deeply as she leaned against it. She glanced around the walls and at the ceiling, then returned to the sofa.

"As you might gather, I don't like talking about them. I try—all members of the Puget Sound Harbor Seal Pod try—to steer clear of them. They can be deadly in more ways than one." She leaned forward. "The Hunters Moon Clan is a nest of hobo spiderlings."

"Spiderlings? You mean werespiders?"

She shrugged. "As I said, they aren't natural Weres, but yes, they are shapeshifters of a sort."

"Oh shit," I said. My stomach twisted. We had werespiders back in OW, and while some of the nests were fine and respected society's rules, others were twisted and cruel, holing up in the depths of the forests, where they could build vast hidden cities. If the Hunters Moon Clan were an unnatural offshoot of the Weres, then they might be far more difficult to get a sense for.

And to make matters worse, hobo spiders were a venomous species that had infiltrated the Pacific Northwest with a vengeance. In their natural form, they waged war against other spiders for territory, eliminating the competition. I could easily see them trying the same tactic with the other clans.

"Where do they nest?" I asked as it dawned on me why Siobhan had taken a long look at the ceiling and walls before speaking. Any shapeshifter or Were who could change into something as small as a spider would have a much greater ability to spy on their enemy and go unnoticed.

Siobhan shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "I suppose somewhere in the woods, but don't take my word for it."

I bit into another salmon-topped cracker. "These are delicious. So, anybody else seem to be on the bad side of the Rainier Puma Pride?"

She gave me a thin smile. "You might try the Loco Lobo Pack, a group of lycanthropes up from the Southwest. Wolves and pumas don't mix all that well. So, how are you getting along? Do you have plans for the holidays?"

As I launched into a vague description of what we were planning, the tension in the room slowly dissipated. Siobhan was scared stiff of the Hunters Moon Clan; that much was obvious. I chatted for a while and promised again to call her as soon as I talked to the medics working with the OIA.

When I left, the wind coming off the bay was harsh, and the smell of snow rich and vibrant to my nose. The afternoon sky glowed with a silvery light, and I felt a stab in my heart, as if an icicle had broken off the roof and plunged through me. I had no idea what was making me so afraid, but suddenly the only thing I wanted was to be safe at home, to call Zachary and tell him I couldn't take the case. But that wasn't an option, not as long as the Degath Squad might be involved.

As I hopped in my Jeep and started the engine, a tickle made me jump. A spider, just big enough to cover my little fingernail, had crawled on the top of my hand. I stared at it for a moment, then without a second thought, I smashed it flat and flicked it out the window.

"So much for you," I whispered. "If you were a spy, then you've just found out what the D'Artigo girls do to their enemies." Wiping my hand on my jeans, I eased out of the driveway onto the road. I decided that when I got home, I'd ask Iris to fumigate my Jeep.

CHAPTER 5

By the time I stopped at McDonald's for a Coke, it was almost three. I checked my messages on my cell phone. Nothing. I punched in number four on speed dial and waited until Chase picked up.

"Hey babe," he said, his voice smooth and fine. "What's going on?"

"Wanted to run a few names by you for you to check on," I said. And then, because his voice made me feel strangely comforted, I added, "I'd like to see you this afternoon, if you have time. I'm busy tonight, but I miss you."

He cleared his throat and then, with a catch in his voice, said, "I want to see you, too. The office is slow today. I can get away for an hour or two. Meet me at my place?"

"See you in half an hour, traffic willing."

Chase lived in Renton, south of Seattle, where the rents were a little cheaper and the neighborhoods a little shadier. It helped him afford the designer suits he had a penchant for. As I navigated through the confusing array of one-way streets and construction projects, I thought about our past few months together.