“KATE, THIS IS really dangerous,” Ascanio said.
Teenage shapeshifters have an interesting definition of “dangerous.” Lyc-V, the virus responsible for their existence, regenerates their bodies at an accelerated rate, so getting stabbed means a nap followed by a really big dinner, and a broken leg would equal two weeks of taking it easy and then running a marathon with no problems. On top of being a shapeshifter, Ascanio was an adolescent male and a bouda, or werehyena, who were in a category all their own when it came to taking risks. Usually when a bouda said that something was dangerous, it meant it could instantly incinerate you and spread the ashes to the wind.
“Alright,” I said. “Hold the rope.”
“I really think it would be better if I went instead.”
Ascanio gave me a dazzling smile. I let it bounce off me and fixed him with my hard stare. Five ten and still slender from growing too fast, Ascanio wasn’t just handsome; he was beautiful: perfect lines, cut jaw, sculpted cheekbones, dark hair, and darker eyes. He had the kind of face that could only be described as angelic; however, one look at those big eyes and you realized that he’d never been to heaven, but somewhere in hell a couple of fallen angels were missing a sixteen-year-old. He realized the effect he had early in life, and he milked it for everything it was worth. In about five years, when that face matured, he would be devastating. If he lived that long. Which right now didn’t seem likely, because I was mad at him.
“Hold the rope,” I repeated, and took the first step.
“Don’t look down,” Ascanio said.
I looked down. I was standing on a metal beam about eighteen inches wide. Below me, the remains of the Georgian Terrace Hotel sagged sadly onto the ruined street. Magic hadn’t been kind to the once-proud building. Its eighteen floors had collapsed in stages, creating a maze of passageways, sheer drops, and crumbling walls. The whole mess threatened to bite the dust any second, and I was on the very top of this heap of rubble. If I slipped, I would fall about a hundred feet to the pavement below. My imagination painted my head cracking like an egg dropped onto the sidewalk. Just what I needed. Because balancing on the iced-over beam wasn’t hard enough.
“I said don’t look down,” Ascanio said helpfully. “Also, be careful, the ice is slippery.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
Below me, the graveyard of Atlanta’s Downtown stretched into the distance. The massive buildings had toppled over decades ago, some shattering into gravel, some almost whole, sprawling on the ground with their beam work exposed, like rotting beached whales with their bones on display. Heaps of rubble choked the streets. Strange orange plants grew among the debris, each a thin stalk terminating in a single triangular leaf. In summer, sewage and rain overflow spilled into the open, but the harsh winter froze it, sheathing the ground with black ice.
The magic of Unicorn Lane swirled around me, dangerous and twisted. Magic flooded our world in waves, here one minute, gone the next, but Unicorn Lane, the lovely place that it was, retained its power even when the tech was at its strongest. It was the place where you came when life’s troubles became too much for you. Things with glowing eyes bred here among fallen skyscrapers, and if you lingered in these ruins, one of them was guaranteed to cure all that ailed you.
Anyone with half a brain avoided Unicorn Lane, especially after dark. But when your business is floundering, you have to take whatever job comes along, especially if it starts with the chief editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution crying in your office chair because her rare and expensive pet has gone missing. Since the magic killed the Internet and crippled TV, newspapers had once again become the primary source of news, and an endorsement from the largest newspaper in the region was worth its weight in gold. Also, she cried in my office. I took the job.
Being a Consort, I didn’t have to work for my living. The Pack took care of the necessities, but I wanted Cutting Edge to succeed and I would do whatever it took to make it stand on its own two feet. Even if it involved tracking down escaped pets.
Unfortunately, the fluffy critter in question had made a beeline straight for Unicorn Lane, and so it took me a few hours to find it. And I let my sixteen-year-old bouda intern come with me, because he could track the beast by scent and I couldn’t. Ascanio wasn’t bad in a fight. He was physically powerful and fast, and he had a strong half-form, a meld between a human and animal that made the shapeshifters incredibly efficient killers. Raphael, the alpha of Clan Bouda, had been whittling Ascanio down into a decent fighter over the past months. Unfortunately all that training didn’t do anything for his common sense.
I had finally cornered the small creature, hiding in a crevice. While I tiptoed toward it making quiet nonthreatening noises, Ascanio decided to help by snarling “to flush it out,” which caused me to nearly fall into a hole in the floor and sent the panicked beast straight to the top of the precariously standing building. Which is how I ended up with a rope around my waist, trying to maneuver on a foot-and-a-half-wide beam protruding twenty feet over a sheer drop, while the exotic and rare pet shivered at the very end of it.
“Please let me do this,” Ascanio said. “I want to help.”
“You’ve helped enough, thank you.” I took another step along the beam. If I fell, with his shapeshifter strength he would have no problems pulling me to safety. If he fell, getting him back up to the top of the building would be considerably harder for me. The deadweight of a human being was no joke.
“I’m sorry I scared it.”
“When I grab it, you can apologize.”
The small beast shivered and tiptoed toward the other end of the beam. Great.
Ascanio growled under his breath.
“I can hear you growling. If I can hear you growling, it can hear you, too. If you scare it into leaping to its death, I’ll be really mad at you.”
“I can’t help it. It’s an abomination.”
The abomination stared at me with large green eyes.
I took another step. “It’s not an abomination. It’s a bunnycat.”
The bunnycat scooted another inch toward the end of the beam. It resembled a criminally fluffy average-sized housecat. Its owner described the fur color as lilac, which to me looked like pale grayish-brown. It had a cute kitten face, framed by two long ears, as if someone had taken regular cat ears and stretched them out, enlarging them to bunny size. Its hind legs were all rabbit, powerful and muscled, while its front legs, much shorter than those of an average cat, looked completely feline. Its tail, a squirrel-like length of fluff, shook in alarm. The first bunnycats were the result of some sort of botched magical experiment at the veterinary school of the University of California. They were sold off to private breeders and since they were rare and cute, they became the latest rage in hideously expensive household pets.
The wind buffeted me. I fought a shiver. “What’s your problem with it anyway?”
“It’s wrong and unnatural,” Ascanio said.
“And turning into a hyena is natural?”
“A cat is a predator. A rabbit is prey. It’s a rodent. They took a cat and mixed it with a rodent. It doesn’t smell right.”
I took a couple more steps. Damn, this beam was high.
“I mean, how would it feed itself?” Ascanio asked. “If it doesn’t hunt, it can’t survive on its own and it’s something that shouldn’t exist. If it does hunt, it will probably catch mice, the only thing small enough besides birds, which means it would be feeding on its relatives. It’s a cannibal rodent. It sounds like a bad movie.”
“Rodents are already cannibals. Ask Clan Rat, they’ll tell you.” The Pack consisted of seven clans, segregated by the species of the animal, and members of Clan Rat were rather pragmatic about their natural counterparts’ habits.
“What do they feed it anyway?” Ascanio asked.
“Bacon and strawberries.”
There was an outraged silence behind me.
“Bacon?” he managed finally.
“Yep.” I moved forward another six inches. Easy does it.
“Because that’s what it would catch in the wild, a boar, right? I can’t wait to see a pack of bunnycats take down a wild hog with those short tiny legs. Wouldn’t the boar be surprised?”
Everybody was a comedian.
“Maybe if I oink loud enough, it’ll leap across the beam and try to devour me.”
A gust of cold wind slammed against me, biting straight through three layers of clothes into my bones. My teeth chattered. “Ascanio . . .”
“I think you misunderstand the whole nature of what it means to be an employee. We have a job to do; we are doing it. Or I’m doing it, and you’re making it more difficult.”
“I’m not an employee. I’m an intern.”
“Try to be a silent intern.”
I crouched on the beam. The bunnycat shivered less than a foot away.
“Here . . .” Bunny? Kitty? “Here, cute creature thing . . . Don’t be scared.”
The bunnycat squeezed itself into a tiny ball, looking sweet and innocent. I’d seen that look on feral cats before. That look meant they would turn into a tornado of razor claws as soon as you were within striking distance.
I scooped it up, bracing myself to be clawed bloody.
The bunnycat looked at me with its round green eyes and purred.
I rose and turned. “Got it.”
The beam collapsed under my feet and we plunged down. My stomach tried to jump out of my mouth. The rope jerked, burning my ribs, and I hung suspended over the sheer drop, the bunnycat snuggled in my arms. The beam crashed to the ground with a loud clang, gouging the crumbling pavement.
The rope rotated slightly. The bunnycat purred, oblivious. Across the ruined city, the sun was rolling toward the horizon, turning the sky orange in its wake. I was alive. How about that? Now I just had to stay that way.
“Okay, pull me up.”
The rope didn’t move.
“Ascanio?” What was it now? Did he see a butterfly and get distracted?
The rope slid up, as fast as if wound by a winch. I shot upward. What the . . . ?
I cleared the edge and found myself face to face with Curran.
He held the rope up with one hand, muscles bulging on his arm under his sweatshirt. No strain showed on Curran’s face. It’s good to be the baddest shapeshifter in the city. Behind him Ascanio stood very still, pretending to be invisible.
Curran’s gray eyes laughed at me. The Beast Lord reached out and touched my nose with his finger. “Boop.”
“Very funny,” I told him. “Could you put me down?”
“What are you doing in Unicorn Lane after dark?”
“Apprehending a bunnycat. What are you doing in Unicorn Lane after dark?”
“Looking for you. I got worried when you didn’t come home for dinner. L'ooks like I found you just in time. Again.” He lowered me onto the ruined roof.
“I had it under control.”
“Mm-hm.” He leaned over the bunnycat and kissed me. He tasted just like I remembered, and the feel of his mouth on mine was like coming home out of a dark cold night to a bright warm house.
I put the bunnycat into the pet carrier and we hightailed it off the roof.
• • •
I HOPPED OVER a metal beam covered in pink slime that steamed despite freezing temperatures. The cold wind licked my back through my jacket.
Ahead of me, Curran leaped onto a concrete boulder. For a large man, he was remarkably graceful. “I parked on Fourteenth.”
Mmm, car. Warm nice car. We had come on foot, and right now the car heater sounded heavenly.
Curran stopped. I landed next to him. “What’s up?”
I looked over Unicorn Lane. In front of me an old apartment building sagged to the street, its weight too much for its magic-weakened steel bones. To the right, frost turned a twisted heap of concrete debris and wire into a labyrinth of white lattice. Looked familiar . . . Ah.
“What is it?” Ascanio asked.
I pointed at the half-crumbled apartment building, where a dark gap offered a way inside. “This is where we first met.”
I had been investigating the death of my guardian and discovered that the Pack was involved. At the time I was doing my best to lie low, which made me an unknown, so Curran invited me for a face-to-face meeting in that apartment building. He’d wanted to see if I’d brave Unicorn Lane at night. I did.
It seemed so long ago now.
Curran put his arm around me. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty?”
“I had to say something to make you come out of the dark.”
“There?” Ascanio asked. “You met in that dark hole?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why would anyone want to meet in Unicorn Lane? Something bad could’ve happened. Why not a nice restaurant? Women like restaurants.”
I cracked up. Curran flashed a grin and we climbed off the concrete into the alley.
Curran had parked his Pack Jeep on the corner of the alley and Fourteenth Street. Three thugs, two men and a woman, were trying to pop the lock open. Oy. Thanks, Atlanta.
The would-be carjackers saw us. The man in a blue jacket swung around and leveled a gun in our general direction. Big barrel, small brain.Hey, here are some guys walking out of Unicorn Lane at night. They’re in good shape and look like they could kick my ass. I think I’m going to try to take their car at gunpoint. Sheer brilliance. Yep, this will totally work.
Without breaking his stride, Curran moved slightly in front of me. I had no doubt that if the thug fired, His Furriness would block it rather than letting the bullet hit me. He’d pulled this maneuver before a couple of times. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I really didn’t want him getting shot on my account.
“Give me the keys!” Blue Jacket said, his voice raspy.
Curran’s eyes went gold. His voice dropped into a rough growl. “If you’re going to shoot, make sure to empty the clip, because after you’re done, I’ll shove that gun up your ass sideways.”
Blue Jacket blinked.
“Can you even do that?” I asked.
“Let’s find out.” Curran stared at the thug. “Well? Shoot, so we can start this experiment.”
Blue Jacket stuck the gun into his pocket and fled. His buddies dashed after him down the street.
Curran shook his head, got the keys out, and opened the hatch. We packed the crate with the bunnycat inside, Curran slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine, and we were off, heading through the city toward the northeast, where the shapeshifter Pack made its lair in the Keep.
The car heater kicked in. My teeth stopped chattering.
“I’m so hungry,” Ascanio said. “What’s for dinner in the Keep?”
“We are going to the Keep,” Curran said. “You’re going to your mother’s house.”
Ascanio bristled. “Why?”
“Because you haven’t been there in the past three days and she would like to see your face. And because she would like to discuss your latest report card.”
Damn it. Him and Julie both. My fifteen-year-old ward had failed algebra in a spectacular fashion. First, she tried to convince me that the teacher lost her homework, all four different assignments of it. Then she ranted for a while about how school was hard and we were placing unreasonable demands on her, and then, for a big finish, she informed us that she would rather drop out and be homeless. Curran and I slow-clapped for a whole minute.
“What did you fail this time?”
“I failed nothing. I’m passing all my classes.”
“He has a forty in algebra,” Curran said.
I turned around in my seat so I could see Ascanio. “How the hell did you get a forty?”
“I don’t know.”
“He isn’t turning his homework in. He spends half of his time with Raphael and the rest with you at Cutting Edge.”
“School is overrated,” Ascanio said. “I don’t like it and I have no interest in it. I just want to work for the Pack.”
“Let me burst that bubble for you,” Curran said. “The Pack requires educated people. If you want to climb up the food chain, you need to know what you’re doing. Most alphas have advanced college degrees. In fact, most people you know have degrees.”
“Like who?” Ascanio asked.
“Raphael has an MBA. Barabas has a Juris Doctor. Andrea has completed the Order’s Academy. Doolittle completed medical school. Mahon has a doctorate in medieval history.”
That explained some things. Mahon ran Clan Heavy and I always thought his reasoning was on the medieval side. Oooh, I should tell him that sometime. He would like that. Just not while he was in his bear form. I could run really well for a human, but I had a feeling an enraged Kodiak would be faster.
“Aunt B didn’t have a degree,” Ascanio volunteered.
“Yes, she did,” Curran said. “She went to Agnes Scott and majored in psychology.”
Ascanio stared out the window.
“What’s the plan?” Curran asked. “You’re sixteen; you have to have a plan. Or are you going to let your mother pay your bills for the rest of your life?”
“No.” Ascanio bit off the word.
“Then I suggest you rethink algebra,” Curran said.
• • •
WE DROPPED ASCANIO off, delivered the bunnycat, got paid, and Curran drove toward the Keep. I snuggled up in my seat. All was well that ended well. I didn’t die; I’d earned my money, I was finally warm, and now, after a long day at work, I’d get to go home and take a nice shower.
“You watch him a lot,” Curran said. “Like you’re expecting he’ll break. He’s a sturdy kid. He can hold his own and I know you know that, so what’s the deal?”
That was a loaded question. “I had a dream last night. I was trapped on the castle tower. The roof was on fire. There were flames all around me and they burned off my feet.” In real life, the castle had been consumed by magical flame, but it had never gotten to that particular tower. It was too high. “In the courtyard Hibla was killing Aunt B.”
That part of the dream was born from my memories, so vivid they hurt. When we had gone to the Black Sea to get the panacea, we found Hugh d’Ambray, my father’s warlord and preceptor of the Order of Iron Dogs. Hibla was his second-in-command. When the castle caught fire, I ended up trapped on top of the tower. I saw our people try to get out of the castle, chased by Hugh’s Iron Dogs, and Aunt B had sacrificed herself. She knew the Iron Dogs would kill her before they would move on. They had a mage with them. I could see it in my mind, the silver chains whipping from the mage and pinning Aunt B in place, the hail of arrows that pierced her body, and finally Hibla, walking to her, sword in hand.
“I was trying to help her,” I said. “In my dream. I was trying to help her, but I had no feet.”
Curran reached over. His warm fingers closed over my hand. He squeezed my fingers gently.
“I remember the way Aunt B snarled just before Hibla took her head off. I can replay that snarl in my head over and over. I was a hundred and fifty feet above them. I couldn’t have heard it.”
“Is that the first time you had the dream?”
“No. I should’ve done . . . more.”
“I love you,” he said. “But even if I didn’t, I would still tell you the same thing. There was nothing you could’ve done. Does it help?”
“Did you talk to anybody besides me?”
“You should talk to someone. The Pack has twelve therapists on our payroll.”
Right. “I’m fine,” I told him. “I just don’t want any of them to die.”
“Any of whom?”
He squeezed my fingers again. “Baby, you can’t wrap them in bubble wrap. They’d rip through it and go for your throat. They’re their own people. Ascanio has two alphas and two betas, and a mother, who is, by the way, a licensed Pack therapist. Talk to Martina. It will help. Talking about it always helps.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He kissed my fingers. “If Derek came to you with this, what would you say?”
“I’d tell him to talk to someone and that the Pack has twelve licensed therapists on the payroll.”
I knew exactly what would help. I needed to kill Hibla. After the castle, when we had boarded our ship, half-dead and barely standing, I was too tired to see anything. But Derek had watched the pier and he saw Hibla run up it, her sword bare. She had survived and she watched us leave. Killing her wouldn’t bring Aunt B back, but it needed to be done. I wanted to send a message. If you killed someone I cared about, I would find you and make you pay for it. It didn’t matter where you ran or how well you hid, I would punish you and I would make it so brutal that nobody else would dare to hurt anyone close to me again. I made Jim look for Hibla, but so far we had nothing. For all I knew, she had stayed back in Europe and I would never see her again.
“You don’t have to go alone,” he said. “If you decide to go and you need me, I’ll come with you. I’ll go in with you or I’ll wait by the door until you’re done.”
“Thank you,” I told him, and meant it.
We fell quiet.
“I have to leave in the morning,” Curran said.
He said “I,” not “we.” “Why?”
“Do you remember Gene Monroe?”
I nodded. Gene Monroe’s family owned the Silver Mountain Mine, near Nantahala Gorge. It was one of the primary sources of silver for the southeast. Gene claimed that his family traced its roots all the way to the Melungeons, Spanish Moors who had settled in the area centuries ago trying to escape the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Given that some members of his family turned into Iberian wolves, his claim had some credit. Gene was isolationist by nature and difficult to deal with. He ran a small shapeshifter group and although his neighbors had joined the Pack a long time ago, Gene had held out.
“Is he giving us trouble?”
“Not exactly. Apparently once a year the men of their pack gather together and go off into the mountains on a hog hunt. Family and close friends only.”
“You’re been invited?” I guessed.
“Do they know you hate hunts?”
“I might have neglected to mention it.” Curran turned the wheel to the right, avoiding a pothole the size of a tire filled with luminescent purple goo of unknown origin. “He wants the panacea.”
I hadn’t quite appreciated the extent of Curran’s diplomatic scheming until I watched him work with panacea. The first thing he did upon arriving home from that trip was to pass a law that no shapeshifter at risk of loupism would be denied panacea within the Pack’s territory. As a result, shapeshifter families from all over the country began settling on the border of the Pack’s territory, forming a buffer between us and the outside world. Some waited for formal admission to the Pack. Some simply wanted a short trip across the border if their child began showing signs of loupism. If trouble came, they would fight for the Pack, because we were their only hope. Meanwhile Curran used panacea as both a club and a carrot, plotting, bribing, and dealing to stabilize the Pack and strengthen our defenses. A war was coming and we were doing all we could to prepare.
Thinking about the panacea and the war made me think of my father. I stomped on that thought before it ruined my evening. “So Gene wants the panacea. What do you want?”
“I want him to be choosier about the buyers for his silver. He’s been trading with the Midwest.”
“Roland?” My father’s name rolled off my tongue. So much for not thinking about the bastard.
Silver was poison to shapeshifters. If my father started buying it in large quantities, he was coming our way and he wouldn’t be bearing gifts. He viewed shapeshifters as a threat. Me, he hated. He’d tried to kill me in the womb, but my mother ran away and sacrificed herself so I could live. My stepfather hid me and over the years honed me into a weapon against my father. I was raised for one purpose: to murder Roland. Unfortunately, my father was a living legend and killing him would be difficult. I’d need a few armored divisions and nuclear support.
Curran grimaced. “Gene won’t like me dictating his business. But I know for a fact that two of his grandchildren went loup at birth, so he will want to deal. That’s what the invitation is about.”
He had to go. Anything that weakened Roland was good for us. Still, I felt uneasy. Ever since the overseas trip, I’d been acutely aware that we’d been living on borrowed time. We didn’t know if Hugh d’Ambray was dead or alive. Personally, dead worked for me, but either way my days of hiding in plain sight were over. Roland would come to investigate who nuked his warlord, sooner rather than later. Every day without him was a gift.
“How long will you be gone?” I asked.
“A day to get there, two days for the hunt, and a day back. I’ll be back by Friday.”
I did some quick calculations. Besides the Pack, Atlanta housed several supernatural factions, of which the People were the most dangerous to us. The People answered to Roland, which was why I’d been doing my best to avoid them. In the past, the Pack and the People nearly drowned Atlanta in a supernatural war over a misunderstanding. Now we met every month at a local restaurant to resolve our conflicts before they spiraled out of control, a meeting imaginatively titled “the Conclave.” Because simply calling it a “monthly get-together” didn’t make everybody feel special enough.
“Leaving tomorrow and coming back on Friday means you’ll be missing the Conclave this Wednesday.” And that meant as the Beast Lord’s Consort, I’d have to lead the Pack’s side of the discussion. I’d rather stab myself with a rusty fork.
He looked at me. “Really? Is the Conclave this week? That’s crazy how it worked out.”
I rolled my eyes.
Curran grinned. He liked sitting through the Conclave meetings about as much as I did.
“It’s been quiet,” he said.
He was right. Today was December third. This was the time the individual clans of the Pack had their year-end meetings. The hunting season was still in full swing and most of the younger, excitable shapeshifters were out of the city chasing after deer and feral hogs and having fun rather than picking fights with the People’s journeymen.
“Jim says over a third of our people are out,” I said. “It’s making him paranoid.”
Curran looked at me. “Making?”
“More than usual.”
Jim was always paranoid, but on our trip to get the panacea, Hugh d’Ambray let it slip that he had a mole on the Pack’s Council. Since that moment Jim’s paranoia level had shot into the stratosphere. He swept the entire Keep for bugs. His people sniffed every square inch of the Council room. He interviewed everyone over and over, until the alphas threatened violence to get it to stop, and when he couldn’t interview them anymore, he tried to have them followed. We almost had a riot. Each individual clan had its own meeting place, and Jim would’ve liked nothing more than to turn them inside out, but nobody would let him in. It was almost Christmas and we still had no idea who was feeding Hugh d’Ambray information. Jim took it personally and it was driving him up the wall.
“When everyone goes hunting, Jim complains about reduced strength,” Curran said. “When everyone comes back for Christmas dinner, he’ll complain that there are too many people and he has to have extra manpower to keep track of them.”
Curran shrugged. “The holidays are coming. Nobody wants to fight before Christmas. The People will bitch and moan at us about some minor stuff, then we will bitch and moan at them about some minor stuff, then everybody will eat, drink, and go home. Just don’t kick any of the Masters of the Dead in the face and we’ll be fine.”
“Don’t worry, Your Furriness. I can hold the fort until Friday.”
He paused. A serious note slipped into his voice. “Just stay safe.”
“What could happen to me? With you gone, Jim will go into overdrive, which means I’ll be surrounded by trigger-happy spree killers and guarded like the Hope Diamond. You’re the one leaving to go into the woods with some people we barely know. Are you taking anyone with you?”
“Mahon, Raphael, and Colin Mather,” Curran said.
Alphas of Clan Heavy, Clan Bouda, and Clan Jackal. Nice.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
With that backup, he could wipe out a small army. “Give my best to Gene. And please let him know that if you don’t come back to me safe and sound, I have no problems mobilizing our shapeshifter horde and invading North Carolina.” And if Gene did anything to hurt him, he would live just long enough to deeply regret it.
The Beast Lord grinned at me. “I doubt it will come to that.”
We drove in silence. I liked sitting next to him. The night outside the car was vast and cold, and he sat warm next to me. If something nasty crossed our path, he’d get out of the car and take it apart. Not that I couldn’t do it myself, but knowing he would be there with me made all the difference in the world. Three years ago, on a night like this I would have been driving my old car home alone, praying it didn’t die a noble death in some snow drift. When I rolled up to the house, it would be dark. My heat would be off to save money, my bed would be cold, and if I wanted to tell someone about my day, I’d have to talk to my sword and pretend it listened. Slayer was an excellent weapon, but it never laughed at my jokes.
“You still haven’t told me what you want for Christmas,” Curran said.
“Time,” I said. “For you and me.” I was so tired living in the glass bowl of the Keep.
“Check the glove compartment?” he asked.
I opened it and pulled out a piece of paper. Cordially invited . . . thank you for your reservation . . . “Is this . . . ?”
“The Black Bear Lodge,” he said.
Two weeks earlier we’d had to go to Jackson County, North Carolina, to remove a loose troll from campus. The Appalachians had a large shapeshifter population and many of their kids went to Western Carolina University. We had stayed at Black Bear Lodge, a newly built timber lodge with good food and cozy rooms with huge fireplaces. We’d spent two glorious days there, hunting the troll, drinking wine in the evening, and making love in a giant soft bed. I wanted to stay so much it almost hurt.
He got this reservation for me. A warm happy feeling spread through my chest.
“How long?” I asked.
“Two weeks. We could leave as soon as I get back and stay until Christmas. We’d have to come back for the holidays or the Pack will scream and howl, but with the ley line it’s only a two-day drive.”
Two weeks. Holy crap. “What about the petition hearing?”
“I handled it,” he said. “Remember that emergency session that ate up last Thursday? I cleared everything.”
“The Gardner lawsuit?”
“Handled it, too.” Curran leaned over and looked at me. His gray eyes glowed with tiny golden sparks. He slowly furrowed his blond eyebrows and moved them up and down.
“Is that your smoldering look?”
“Yes. I’m trying to communicate the promise of nights of ecstasy.”
I laughed. “Did you read that pirate book Andrea left for me?”
“I might have leafed through it. So how about it? Will you do me the honor of accompanying me to the Black Bear Lodge, so we can lie in bed all day, get drunk and fat, and not have to think about anything related to Atlanta for the entire time?”
“Will I get nights of ecstasy?”
“And days. Ecstasy all the time.”
Two weeks, just Curran and me. It sounded heavenly. I would’ve killed to be able to go and I meant it literally.
“Deal, Your Majesty.”
ISTOOD IN a small concrete room and watched the undead blood lying in a placid puddle at my feet. The magic in it called to me, eager and encouraging, whispering a soft seductive song.
Sometimes the Universe smiled. Mostly she kicked me in the face, stomped on my ribs once I fell down, and laughed at my pain, but once in a while she smiled. It was Wednesday. I had gone through the entire stack of activity reports for the Conclave detailing all incidents and conflicts between us and the People that could possibly cause us trouble. No murders, no assaults, no heated exchanges of words. Nobody had stolen anybody’s property. Nobody had gotten drunk and hit on someone’s boyfriend. Hallelujah.
My work done, I locked myself in here, in a small rectangular room of stained sealed concrete. It used to be a storage room for Curran’s gym equipment, but he moved it out and gave the room to me. Nothing interrupted the light brown concrete except for the drain on the floor. Most days I didn’t need the drain.
My magic streamed out of me, like vapor from a boiling pot thrust outside into the cold. If it glowed, I’d look like I was on fire. Most of the time I kept the magic hidden inside me. Leaving it on display was extremely unwise for someone of my lineage.
I beckoned the blood with my magic. A faint tremor troubled the puddle of blood on the floor, as if something moved under the surface.
Voron, my adoptive father, always taught me that suppressing the power of my blood was the best strategy. Keep quiet. Keep hidden. Don’t practice magic that could give you away. That was no longer an option. I needed this magic. I had to be good at it. Nobody could teach me, so I taught myself. I practiced and practiced and practiced. Some of the blood came from Jim. He bought it for me on the black market. Some undead blood came from Rowena, a Master of the Dead who owed the local witches a favor. The witches knew who I was and backed me up. They saw the writing on the wall: when Roland came, I was the only thing standing between them and my father, so they made Rowena supply me with vampire blood. She had no clue what it was for. I had practiced every day the magic was up.
My progress was slow, so slow, I gritted my teeth when I thought about it. I was beginning to hate this room. It reminded me of a tomb. Maybe I should add some graffiti to spice it up. For a good time call the Consort. Beast Lord eats your food and turns into a lion in his sleep. Mahon has hemorrhoids. Boudas do it better. Warning: paranoid attack jaguar on the prowl . . .
A quiet knock echoed through the room. I jumped a little.
“It’s me,” Barabas said.
I unlocked the door. “Come in.”
He sauntered in, moving with casual elegance. No matter what he wore, Barabas always managed to project an air of urbane, civilized polish that came with a sharp edge. Tall, lean, and pale, he had fire-bright red hair that stuck out from his head like a forest of aggressive spikes. If he ever frosted his hair blue, he’d look like a gas burner. And if someone looked at me the wrong way, he’d rip right through his civilized veneer and become a manic tornado of razor claws and dagger fangs. One messed with a weremongoose at one’s peril.
“If it’s bad, I don’t want to hear it.”
Barabas was one of the Pack’s lawyers, and he did his best to navigate me through the treacherous mire of shapeshifter politics and laws.
“It’s not bad.” Barabas sat on the floor, throwing one long lean leg over the other and grimaced. “Well, I take it back. It might be.”
“Will it freak you out if I finish this? I already poured blood on the floor.”
“No, no. Why let good undead blood go to waste?”
I pricked my forearm with a needle and let a single drop of blood fall into the puddle. Magic shot through the undead blood like lightning. The blood slid upward in a graceful crimson arch.
“Whoa,” Barabas murmured.
The blood touched my fingers and wound around them, gliding over my skin, elastic and pliant. A blood gauntlet sheathed my hand. It wasn’t pretty but it was functional. I pulled a knife from my belt and sliced across the gauntlet.
Barabas made a sympathetic sucking noise.
No blood. I felt the pressure of the blade but it didn’t penetrate. I bent my fingers, trying to make a fist. I made it about two-thirds of the way. About a year ago my aunt Erra had come to Atlanta intending to wreck it. I killed her. It was the hardest thing I’d done in my life. She was wearing blood armor when she died. It fit her like spandex. She had run and twisted in it, and she had no problem swinging an axe fast enough to counter me. I tried the gauntlet again. The blood refused to bend. I was clearly doing something wrong. This wouldn’t work. If I couldn’t hold a sword, I might as well sign my own death warrant.
I concentrated on thinning the blood, turning it into segments that sat on top of each other like the plates of armadillo armor. “So what’s up?”
“Two things. First, Christopher wants to talk to you.”
Speaking with Christopher was like playing Russian roulette: sometimes you got brilliance so bright it hurt and sometimes you got complete nonsense. We had rescued him from Hugh d’Ambray. He must’ve been exceptionally smart at some point and he definitely had knowledge of advanced magic, but either Hugh or my father had broken his mind. Christopher’s hold on reality frequently slipped, and once in a while we had to drop everything and run out on the parapets to convince him that no, he could not fly. I could usually talk him down, but if he was really far gone it took Barabas to make him stop.
“He’s been agitated for the last two days,” Barabas said. “I have no idea if he’s even coherent.”
“Where is he now?”
“Hiding in the library.”
Not a good sign. The library was Christopher’s refuge. Books were precious to him. He treated them like treasure and hid among them when the world became too much for him. Something must’ve really gotten under his skin.
“Did he say what it was about?”
“Just that it was important. You don’t have to talk to him,” Barabas said.
“That’s okay. I’ll speak to him after the Conclave.” I tested the gauntlet. Like having a can wrapped around my fingers. Ugh. What was I doing wrong? What? “What was the second thing?”
“Jim has assembled the Praetorian Guard and is waiting for your inspection.”
Oh joy. Jim must’ve pulled together a cutthroat crew of shapeshifters ready to protect me at the Conclave. “As I recall, the Praetorian Guard killed the Roman emperors as often as it protected them. Should I be worried?”
“Are you planning on setting the Keep on fire while playing thrilling melodies on a fiddle?”
Barabas flashed me a quick smile, showing sharp teeth. “Then probably not.”
Barabas looked at me carefully. “Clan Nimble inquires if the wedding date has been set.”
“Yes. They want to prepare and choose the appropriate present. You’re really throwing them off their game by refusing to set the date.”
I never pictured myself getting married. I never picked out my future gown or looked at a bridal magazine. That wasn’t my future. My future was surviving until I was strong enough to kill my father. But then Curran threw a wrench into those plans and asked me, and I said yes, because I loved him and I wanted to marry him. My future had made a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn. Now I had to think about the details. I wanted a small ceremony with as little ceremony in it as possible. Quiet, private, maybe a few friends.
As soon as the engagement was announced, the Pack Clans converged and shot the idea of a quiet ceremony out of the water and then kept firing at it until it stopped convulsing and died. They wanted the whole Pack to be there. They wanted presents and rituals and a giant feast. They wanted a Wedding, with a capital W. Clan Heavy and Clan Rat both owned bakeries, and the bakers almost came to blows over who would be doing the cake. Should it be a winter wedding or a spring wedding? Who would make my gown and what should it look like? Was it appropriate for me to wear white or should it be gray, the official color of the Pack? Argh.
Every moment Curran and I spent together was ours. Just ours. And so we kept putting off the wedding. We never conspired to do it. We both were just too busy to get married and when we did have a few free hours, we hoarded them to spend with each other and Julie.
Revue de presse
“Ilona Andrews pens my favorite flavor of keeper novel: tough characters, marvelous voice, fast paced with that sharp edge of humor that adds the final grace note.”—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“One of the brightest voices in urban fantasy, and one of my favorite authors. Ilona Andrews delivers only the best.”—New York Times bestselling author Jeaniene Frost
“Vividly imagined fight scenes, clever use of obscure mythology, a uniquely interesting setting, and rich characterization make this a rare treat.”—Publishers Weekly
“Kate is a great kick-ass heroine.”—Locus
“Andrews’ edgy series stands apart.”—Library Journal
“A blend of gritty magic and dangerous mystery.”—The Parkersburg News and Sentinel
“Gritty sword-clashing action and flawless characterizations will bewitch fans, old and new alike.”—Sacramento Book Review
“All-nighter material…Hot Action, heart-stopping emotion, and quick wit banter all in one delicious package. If there is one author that defines Urban Fantasy, it is Ilona Andrews.”—Fresh Fiction
“Absolutely FANTASTIC…Shapeshifting, sarcastic, kick-ass glory!”—Fantasy Faction