Finding Chicanery Night drunk in her family’s empty kitchen had been terrifying.
Finding Chicanery Night absolutely sloshed in her family’s very full kitchen was so much worse.
Jupiter just stood there a minute, taking in the scene before her. Her aunt and three of her cousins were staring at Chicanery with varying degrees of disgust and unease. Though obviously not fully human—if one knew or assumed that aliens existed, of course—Chicanery had the (unfortunate?) ability to pass as someone violently ill. Or perhaps dying.
Skin pale as paper, red nose, red-lined eyes, a distinctly rat-like bone structure that might be explained away as weight loss in the right light... If it weren’t for the lack of wrinkles and his spry movements, most would have assumed that Chicanery was a particularly ugly, sickly old man—even with his white hair covered up by that god-awful fedora (what?).
Of course, none of this was helped by his current drunk-off-his-ass state.
Chicanery raised his hand and twiddled his fingers at Jupiter. He mouthed a rather exaggerated, ‘Your Majesty.’
Oh my god. Jupiter’s purse fell from numb fingers.
And then her mother snatched up her free hand. With a squeak Jupiter was dragged backwards, out of the kitchen, watching as the rest of her family cast her pitying glances while stifling laughter (traitors). The last thing she saw was Anna leaning into Vera’s ear, no doubt calling dibs on Jupiter’s wardrobe once she was dead.
They didn’t stop until they were both outside on the stoop, sweating in the night air. Well. Jupiter was sweating. Her mom stood tall and solid, waiting for her to break.
“I can explain,” she said.
Aleksa raised an eyebrow.
The other eyebrow joined its pair.
“Like, double dog give the pooch a bone swear.” Jupiter winced. Shit. Don’t think about dogs right now. Just don’t.
What? My pseudo son’s space advisor who may or may not have kidnapped you a few months back? A mostly human, but also part rat, and probably part con man alien? A random dude who wandered in thinking our house was a brewery and just happened to know your daughter’s nam—wait.
Jupiter’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly did he tell you?”
Aleksa pursed her lips. She seemed to debate handing over that information for a moment. Finally, “Only that he was a friend of yours. Then he proceeded to demolish the vodka.”
“Oh.” Jupiter blinked. “Chicanery said we were friends? That’s disturbing.”
“Yes, it is!” Aleksa wacked Jupiter across the ear, making her yelp. “Creepy man arrives, demands to see you, and as you were out gallivanting with the boyfriend you will not introduce us to,” The last part was hissed menacingly. “He kindly accepts our offer of drinks while he waits. I can’t say I blame him, Jupiter. Knowing you often drives us all to drink!”
“Okay, okay, okay…” Trying to pull her ear to freedom, Jupiter spotted her salvation across the street: a woman hurrying home after a late night out, her long coat ruffling, her heels click-clacking across the pavement. Long and slim and blonde. There was only one other person like that in Jupiter’s life.
“He’s one of Katharine Dunlevy’s!”
Her ear was immediately released. “What?”
“Yeah,” Jupiter nodded hurriedly. “Really. He’s one of her… friends. Technically number nine. Not that she’s going to admit to that.”
“No, I can see why not…” Aleksa peered closely at her daughter. “Truly? The pretty one who always lets you try on her clothes—which you shouldn’t be doing, foolish girl. That Dunlevy? I thought she had better taste.”
“Well, he’s very, very rich, you see…”
“Oh I know.”
Aleksa’s smile suddenly dropped. “And what does this rich man want with you, hmm?”
“I have no idea.” What was that saying? The truth shall set you free? Jupiter danced a little anxious dance and hoped her mom would take the hint. “Why don’t we go back inside and let him tell us?”
They did go inside and for ten precious more seconds, Jupiter kept it to herself that this conversation wouldn’t actually include an ‘us.’
“Our room!” Aunt Nino screeched as Vera turned her laugh into a coughing fit. Across the table her mother’s mouth dropped straight to the floor. Jupiter ignored them all.
“Get your heads out of the gutter,” she huffed. “We’re just going to chat. Aren’t I entitled to a little privacy around here?”
Jupiter was pretty sure that her family was giving a resounding ‘no,’ but she was a bit distracted by Chicanery. He’d snorted indelicately at the word ‘entitled’ and then began listing alarmingly to the left. Jupiter caught him around the shoulders, noting with surprise how light he was, until Chicanery jerked right out of her arms with a wince. His own hands rose to where she’d gripped his upper arms, like Jupiter had branded him instead of just offering support. He stopped just short of touching his own coat.
Whatever tipsiness he’d been indulging in seemed to evaporate. Chicanery looked everywhere but at Jupiter and her relations.
“I’m fine, Your… ah. Yes. Well. Perhaps we might speak then? Privately?”
“That was the plan,” and Jupiter ushered him into the bedroom as quickly as his wobbly legs would allow. She firmly closed the door on her family’s shocked expressions, resting her forehead against the wood and letting out a groan.
“I. Am. Dead.”
“I certainly hope not, Your Majesty,” came the equally painful words from behind. Jupiter whirled to find Chicanery sitting on her mother’s bed—dear god—massaging his eyes and attempting a half bow when he saw her looking his way. Instead of acknowledging the late courtesy Jupiter marched forward and snatched that fedora right off his head. She threw open the window and tossed the offending article out onto the street.
“I did need that to leave,” he sighed. “Unless you’d like to explain the ears.”
“No need. I’ll be tossing you out the window next.”
“Don’t ‘Your Majesty’ me.” Jupiter hissed. “You’re drunk! And—and—” she waved her arms erratically. “And you’re just chumming with my family? The ones you kidnapped? What the fuck? And you’re totally drunk!”
“Yes. You mentioned that part.”
Vodka apparently did wonders for Chicanery’s sarcasm levels. Though still deferential, there was a definite mocking edge to his voice that Jupiter would bet Earth and all her assets he’d regret in the morning. Still, the rest of Chicanery was pretty messy: paler than his normal pale, more bleary eyed that his no-rest schedule usually produced, maybe even thinner than when she’d last seen him. Jupiter also didn’t miss how he continued to flinch whenever she got too close. With a sigh Jupiter forced herself into a more relaxed stance.
“Balem?” she asked.
“Of course.” Relieved to be back on familiar ground, Chicanery straightened to the best of his ability. “I assure you, Your Majesty, an emergency of this magnitude necessitated my contacting you, and as you’ve opted not to wire any communication devices into your nervous system…” he raised his hands, unrepentant.
“I do have a phone, you know.”
“Which is currently turned to silent.”
Jupiter’s hand flew to her jeans. “Oh… Wait. Emergency? And none of this explains why you’re wasted.”
“I am perfectly functional…” she heard him mutter. Then: “Lord Balem has…”
Both of them jumped and turned to find Caine climbing in through the open window, his wings furling up to lay flat across his back. His eyes were locked on Chicanery and he was emitting a low, continuous growl. Chicanery, for his part, did an excellent impression of a mouse about to get mauled. With another sigh Jupiter stepped between them.
“I thought you were meeting Kiza and heading back to Stinger’s?” Yes. That came out as a whine. Jupiter so didn’t care right now.
“And then I smelled him.” Caine lay a hand on the gun at his hip. He cocked his head like he was still tracking the scent—and he didn’t like it. Whatever he smelled made his nose curl and stiffen.
“Right. Ground rule: no shooting when my family is right outside. In fact, no shooting, period. Caine?”
“…Yes, Your Majesty.” Slowly, Caine released the death grip on his gun. Chicanery started breathing again.
“Great. Now why don’t you close the window before anyone else shows up and then we can talk this out together?”
Grinning far more than the situation warranted, Kiza came swinging in through the window too. She landed with a happy thump and turned to shut the window herself, briskly shaking out her arms, and then shrugging when the other three just stared at her. “What? The Queen’s dog ditches me for something exciting and you think I’m not gonna follow him? Please. Also, I found a fedora on the street?” Sure enough the battered hat appeared from behind Kiza’s back. “What’s been going on here?”
“Okay one, burn that. Two,” Jupiter pointed to her guest; looked to Caine. “You smell Chicanery from across town but not Kiza three steps behind you?”
Caine shuffled his feet. “I was focusing on you, Your Majesty…”
“And because I’m such a threat,” Chicanery drawled. He leaned his head back against the wall and shut his eyes. “Can I have my hat back?”
“Queen’s orders.” Kiza agreed. “Are you drunk?”
“Not nearly enough for this, I fear.”
“Okay, seriously, would all of you just—”
“JUPITER.” The four of them jumped when a pounding sounded on the bedroom door. Jupiter clapped a hand over Kiza’s giggling mouth.
“Yeah, mom?” She called. “We’re good. Fine. Just give us a minute okay?” Kiza’s laughter increased tenfold until Jupiter had to elbow her in the stomach to shut her up. “Seriously. Be out in a sec.”
Tentatively, the footsteps retreated.
Jupiter dropped her hand and wiped Kiza’s saliva onto her jeans. “That’s it. Chicanery? You’ve got three seconds to explain before I really do toss you all out the window. And Caine is the only one who can fly.”
Still half-propped against the wall, Chicanery let out a shudder as if the very topic brought him physical pain.
“Very well, Your Majesty. The short of it is that Lord Balem has had a bit of an accident. He is now six years old.” It was blood-shot eyes that finally opened. “And he is demanding to see his mother.”
Silence reigned in the Jones’ bedroom. The three of them turned to Jupiter, each bearing their own, unique expression. Caine looked positively horrified, Kiza thrilled, while Chicanery gazed upon his former enemy with nothing but desperation filling his eyes. He appeared an instant away from getting down on his knees to beg.
Jupiter took a deep breath and smiled wide.
“I’m, like, ninety-nine percent sure I said no to this.”
They certainly made for a merry band of misfits. Fearing her mother’s wrath, Jupiter had moved their insane conference out onto the street—making Caine fly them down one by one through the window, rather than braving the kitchen again. (He’d held Chicanery out at arm’s length and threatened to drop him. Twice). From there they’d called Stinger and gotten him to come out in his pickup, into which they’d all piled themselves. Why would a bunch of technologically advanced splices and an Entitled bother traveling by truck?
Because Chicanery forgot where he’d parked his ship.
“Seriously,” Jupiter said. Not that anyone was listening to her at this point. “What is even going on tonight?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same question, Your Majesty.” Chicanery said. He was up in the front seat next to Stinger, who was casting him about as kind a look as any. Still rubbing his head, Chicanery gestured vaguely over the dashboard while peering blearily ahead. “Left. I think.”
“How do you lose your ship, rat?”
“Ever downed an entire store of Perillian wine, bee?” Chicanery clucked his tongue. “Ah. Sadly that term doesn’t sound quite as derisive, now does it? Pity. And before you start casting judgment, legionnaire, I’d invite you to spend a month with Lord Balem as a juvenile and see how well you handle it.”
A shudder went through the whole truck at that. Jupiter was squeezed between Caine and Kiza in the back; Caine massaging her hands while Kiza absently braided her hair. She twisted awkwardly in her seat as her mouth slowly fell open.
“This has been going on for a month?” She asked.
“We have been attempting to fix things. Your Majesty, whatever else you might think of me, I am not dragging you into this mess purely for my own amusement.” (‘Purely,’ mouthed Kiza). “We had hoped to revert the process before Lord Balem’s requests grew too… vocal.” Chicanery pressed harder against the bridge of his nose.
“Fair enough. And this happened how exactly?”
“Soaking probably,” came Caine’s familiar growl. Seeing that his tone had stressed his Queen, he began kneading the edge of her palm again. Jupiter sighed and let her back fall more heavily against Kiza’s hands.
“It’s common among the Entitled,” he continued. Caine’s growl morphed into more of a soothing purr as his hands kept working their magic. “The ReGenX returns the genes—the body—to the height of their physicality. But if you stay in too long it can cause a reversion of shorts. You grow younger.” He planted a kiss against her knuckles, sucking a bit at the flesh there. “The Entitled sometime get tired of living in their thirties, or their twenties. Some enjoy looking juvenile for their sexual partners.”
“Ew,” Jupiter said. Not that she was in any position to judge when her space-werewolf-angel had moved to doing rather obscene things to her neck.
A rather forceful cough sounded from the front. “Caine,” Stinger said. “Have you forgotten that my daughter is right behind the woman you’re currently ravaging?”
Kiza shook her head wildly. “No, no. I’m good. Don’t mind me.”
“I do believe this is the worst night of my life,” Chicanery intoned. “Left.”
“Nah. I’m pretty sure nearly dying a fiery death on my namesake planet was the worst.” Jupiter reluctantly pulled back, but not before planting another quick kiss on Caine’s lips. She resolutely ignored the sound of Kiza’s iPhone snapping behind her. With a whine Jupiter finally eased back completely and stretched her fingers out. Cleaning for a living was murder on the hands.
“Thanks for that,” she said. “Both ‘that’s.’”
Caine dipped his head and smiled. “Your Majesty.”
“Focusing then. Balem did this soaking thing?”
“Your dog is simplifying things for you.” Chicanery sighed. “Take a right. Yes, by that inflatable… balloon… thing. Gods know I remember flying over that. Now, he’s correct that soaking is a fairly common pastime among the Entitled, but never to an extent such of this. Soaking long enough to induce mental as well as physical regression… that’s unheard of.”
“Except for Liam,” Stinger piped up. He caught Jupiter’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “Legend has it that millions of years ago—this was before even the Abrasaxs, mind—an Entitled called Liam lost the love of his life and killed himself using ReGenX. Soaked until he was a child, then an infant, then…” Stinger trailed off, shrugging.
“Absurdity,” Chicanery muttered. “As you said, a legend.”
Kiza popped two sticks of gum in her mouth and said around it, “Besides. Who kills themselves using ReGenX? Just pick up a damn gun.”
“Thank you! Listen to the bee girl.”
“The name’s Kiza, a-hole.”
Rolling her eyes Jupiter pushed forward until she was effectively blocking the two’s view of each other. “Okay, kids. Keep it together. Do we care what people thought before? It’s obviously not a legend, right? This soaking thing happened to Balem.”
“We believe it happened to Lord Balem, Your Majesty. The fact is that unlike other parties, Lord Balem does not enjoy an audience” (“Kalique,” Kiza, smirking). It is not unheard of for him to make use of his bath and then… ah, spend time admiring his appearance.” (“Really.” Caine, growling). “No one knows for sure what occurred. We weren’t even aware that anything was amiss until the screaming started and by then, suddenly, I had a pint-sized Entitled to cater to.” Chicanery leaned his forehead against the cool glass, sighing softly.
“And this was a month ago?” Jupiter asked.
“Roughly speaking, yes.”
“Why would Balem do this?”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty.”
“How are they gonna fix it?”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty.”
“Well what the hell do you expect me to do about it?”
Chicanery whirled in his seat as Caine threw an arm up to shield Jupiter. The advisor simply glared though, his fingers twitching along the armrest like pale, crazed spiders.
“You are his mother,” he hissed.
“I’m not,” Jupiter shot right back.
“Well you’re close enough!”
Caine got between them and with her nose now an inch from his skin, Jupiter could see the small hairs rising on the back of his neck. His thigh overlapped with hers and she could feel it trembling. Though the hand along her knee was tense, it wasn’t in any danger of bruising her. It was just a solid, reassuring weight.
“If her Majesty does not wish to babysit this Entitled,” he bit out. “Then she won’t.”
“Isn’t it sort of a moot question at this point?” Kiza said, popping her gum. “You’re here aren’t you? Whine all you want, Your Majesty, but you kinda accepted the second you got in the car.”
“I did not,” Jupiter muttered. Yes, whined. Whatever.
“Kiza,” Stinger said, low and strained. “Don’t fight with your Queen.”
Kiza rolled her eyes and went back to staring out the window. They all heard her mutter something about this Entitled stuff supposedly being more fun.
“What about Kalique?” Jupiter asked desperately. She gave a shocked laugh when the car remained silent. “C’mon! Surely Kalique is better suited for all this?”
But Chicanery was shaking his head. “As a younger sibling, Lady Kalique is a stranger to Lord Balem. He was well into his thousands when she was engineered. Not to mention, as I’ve said, Lord Balem is asking for his mother.”
“Titus?” Jupiter tried.
“Mother, Your Majesty.”
With a groan Jupiter threw herself back against the seat. A deferential cough sounded beside her.
“And if I may add, Your Majesty?” Caine said. He swallowed and looked like he was about to commit treason. He swallowed again. “Lord Titus also might not be the best guardian…”
“… because I’m not sure he knows how to interact with anything that doesn’t flirt.”
Chicanery snorted. “An accurate assessment. There are two ways such a scenario could end, neither of which are preferable.” He leveled Jupiter with a stare. “All the more reason for me to call on his mother instead.”
“But I’m not!” On her left Kiza winced and Jupiter apologetically patted her hair. “Sorry, sorry, but seriously. I’ve not his mom. I’m not a mom, period. I don’t know how to take care of a kid, let alone a Balem-kid. I mean yeah, sure, I took care of cousin Mika for, what? Two days? That’s it. I’m gonna drop him on his head or feed him too warm milk or something equally horrible. Do six-year-olds even want milk anymore? And isn’t he gonna get suspicious when his ‘mom’ is suddenly a jean-wearing, ponytail, eyeliner sorta girl? I mean c’mon. Seraphi and I might be identical and all but we’re a little different in the personality department.”
“Your Majesty…” Chicanery paused, seeming to gather his words. “If I may speak freely? I do believe that the differences you speak of may play well to your advantage. Her Majesty Seraphi was... not the most maternal. At least from what I have heard,” he amended. “As for your worry regarding Lord Balem’s memories, there is little chance that he knew his mother well enough by age six to truly recognize her.”
Something cold settled in the back of Jupiter’s throat. “What?”
“Is it surprising? A few years to an immortal is the mere blink of an eye. Leaving your child for that length of time is not so different from, well, leaving them with a nanny for the afternoon.”
“Oh, it’s different,” Jupiter said. Her voice dropped so hard and so fast that Chicanery reared back, his eyes widening. “I don’t care how long you live. You don’t leave a kid for six fucking years.”
Kiza snapped her fingers. “And that is why you’re gonna be better at this than you think. Bet you ten bucks Her Majesty Seraphi never worried about milk.”
A solid silence descended on the truck. Despite how uncomfortable she still was, Jupiter felt her cheeks heating at Kiza’s words. It grew about ten-thousand times worse when Caine tentatively took her wrist, checked for permission, and then planted the softest kiss across the length of a vein. His expression held enough pride and heat to make Jupiter tremble.
“You’re not like them, Your Majesty.” He said, not for the first time.
“Amen to that,” Kiza laughed.
Stinger hummed an agreement from the front while Chicanery, peering up from where he’d ducked for safety, slowly nodded his head.
“At the risk of aligning myself with your pack,” he murmured (Stinger scoffed). “And working under the assumption that such conversations will not make their way back to Lord Balem once this nightmare is through,” Chicanery drew a deep breath. “They are quite right, Your Majesty. All I ask is for an hour. A half-hour even. Simply see, Lord Balem. I guarantee he will benefit more from a short time in your company than all the robo-nurses combined.”
Jupiter smiled a wane smile. “And you’ll get a break too.”
“… yes. With my deepest gratitude.”
She outright laughed at that. “What makes you think I’m not gonna chuck him off the nearest high surface? He did try to kill me, my family, my whole damn planet...”
“Your Majesty.” Chicanery leveled a look that brooked no argument, not even in the presence of a royal. “The day you act with such malice is the day I retire. Permanently.”
“Humans, right?” Kiza popped her gum again, sounding oddly pleased. She nudged a moaning Jupiter in the ribs. “They’re weird.”
Miraculously, they did eventually find Chicanery’s ship. It was wedged between two townhouses and sporting more than a bit of damage to the paint. Jupiter clamored out of the truck and couldn’t help but let out a low whistle at the damage.
“Pseudo-enemies or no, when this is over and done with you and I are having a long conversation about drunk driving. Or flying. Drunk flying.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Jupiter went to clap Chicanery companionably on the shoulder—he was still looking pretty sloshed—but he shrunk back, with more violence than he’d done in her kitchen. Jupiter froze with her hand halfway in the air and then, oh so carefully, leaned in close so that the others wouldn’t hear… and Chicanery wouldn’t startle.
“Real talk for a sec,” she whispered. “Don’t tell me mini-Balem has a stronger right than his grown counterpart?”
Chicanery let out a chuckle. It sounded strained though. “Certainly not. It’s the pitch of young Lord Balem’s voice that you need fear.”
He shrugged. It looked about as natural as his chuckle had sounded. “It has been a long half a year, Your Majesty. Though the Abrasax dynasty has decided to put the unfortunate events at the refinery behind them—for the good of the family, you understand—Lord Balem is still taking the loss of Earth and your recurrence… hard.”
“So what you’re saying is he’s still a pissy, Oedipal brat who’s mad at me and taking it out on you?”
“I did not say that, Your Majesty.”
Jupiter raised her hand in a sudden, sharp gesture and Chicanery skittered back.
“Didn’t need to.” Her stomach tightened at the look on Chicanery’s face though. Shit.
“Oi, Your Majesty!”
With a final look at Chicanery, Jupiter followed Kiza’s call back to the truck. She was still crowded around the hood with her dad and Caine, all of whom were casting her uneasy glances as she approached. Jupiter knew what was up by the time she’d wormed her arms around Caine’s waist. She pressed her face against the bare skin of his arm, noting that wolf coat or no, he retained the heat of the sun remarkably well. Jupiter was more than willing to make use of him as a personal space heater—pun intended.
That, and she wasn’t quite willing to let go yet.
“You three aren’t coming, are you?” She sighed.
“It’s for the best, Your Majesty.” Stinger said. “Despite what the rat might say about Lord Balem’s memories, it’s not worth risking his rage for you to tote a collection of Splices along with you. Especially ones that have antagonized him in the past.”
“I don’t ‘tote’ you anywhere,” Jupiter said.
Stinger’s expression softened. “A poor choice of words. Just know that we make this decision based on what’s best for you.” He paused. “Of course. It’s not truly our decision to make.”
Caine nodded, dipping down to press his nose against Jupiter’s hair. “If you want us to come, we’ll come.” He said simply.
But Jupiter shook her head. “It’s fine. Really. Not sure I want you three laughing as I try manhandling a kiddie Balem anyway. You’ll wait though?”
“Right here,” Kiza promised, knocking her boot against the underside of the truck. “However long it takes.”
“Don’t worry. Won’t take long at all.” Jupiter leaned up to steal one last kiss from Caine, moaning when his hands briefly fell to press at the back of her thighs. They both heard the familiar click of Kiza’s phone.
Jupiter left reluctantly to rejoin Chicanery and as she did the last thing she heard was Stinger’s low voice chasing her back.
“Give me the phone, Kiza. Now.”
‘Won’t take long at all.’
If someone had repeated Jupiter’s words to her a week later, she would have laughed herself sick, downed a few shots, and possibly punched them. Caine had been teaching her a thing or two after all.
‘Won’t take long?’