Magic Rises Chapter 3

When Curran and I got down from the roof in search of breakfast, Barabas ambushed us with stacks of paper.

"What is this?" I pondered the two-inch stack.

"This is everything you have to do before you can leave for the Black Sea." He pointed to the nearest conference room. A breakfast had been laid out. Plates with scrambled eggs, heaps of bacon, piles of sausage, and mountains of fried meat shared space with pitchers of coffee and towers of pancakes. The smell swirled around me. Suddenly I was ravenous.

"Does the whole Keep know we're leaving?" Curran asked.

"I'm sure a few people are still asleep, but everyone else does, yes." Barabas placed a stack on the table and held the chair out for me. "For you."

"I'm hungry and I don't have time for this."

Barabas's eyes held no mercy. "Make time, Alpha. You have two hands. You can eat and sign simultaneously."

Curran grinned.

"Enjoying my suffering?" I asked.

"I find it hilarious that you'll run into a gunfight with nothing but your sword, but paperwork makes you panic."

Barabas put a thicker stack in front of him. "This is yours, m'lord."

Curran swore.

The shapeshifters enjoyed high metabolisms, which helped them blast through nutrients and save up energy for changing shape. But that same metabolism made them gorge themselves. Watching Curran go through food was a frightening experience. He didn't rush or devour his food with his hands. He just ate a very large amount of it. I thought I'd get used to it with time, but when he went in for his third heaping plate, I blinked. He must've skipped dinner last night.

The door to the conference room opened and Jim strode in, like an impending storm. Six feet tall, with dark, smooth skin and a gaze that made you want to back away and look for the nearest exit, Jim served as the Pack's chief of security. He and I knew each other from way back, when we both worked for the Mercenary Guild and we occasionally teamed up. I had needed the money and Jim couldn't stomach working with anyone else.

Jim leaned on the table. "I'm going."

"No," Curran said. "I need you here. You have to run the Pack while we're gone."

"Make Mahon do it."

Mahon Delany, an alpha of Clan Heavy, served as the Pack's executioner. He'd raised Curran after Curran's family was murdered, and he was probably the most respected among the fourteen alphas of the Pack. He was not universally loved, however.

"The jackals would riot and you know it," Curran said. "You can hold the clans together. Mahon can't. He's old-fashioned and ham-fisted, and if I put him in charge, we'd come back to a civil war."

"And who's going to watch your ass while you're over there? It's not just about what they are doing, it's thinking about what they could do and how they could do it. Who'll do that for you?"

"Not you," Curran said. "I need you here."

Jim turned to me. "Kate?"

If he thought I was getting in the middle of that, he was crazy. "Oh, look at all this paperwork I have. Can't talk now, very busy."

Jim landed in the chair, looking like he wanted to strangle someone.

Barabas put another piece of paper in front of me. Oy.

"You should let Kate handle it," Jim said. "You've never done a large-scale bodyguard detail. She has more experience and she's decent at it."

I pointed a piece of bacon at him. "I'm not just decent. I'm damn good and you know it."

"We've talked it over," Curran said. "She guards Desandra, I snarl and run interference with the packs, and when she tells me to push, I push. We've got this, Jim."

"Or at least they think they do." Barabas took the paper I'd just signed and blew on the ink.

"Take Barabas," Jim said suddenly. "If you won't take me, take Barabas. He's devious, paranoid, and obsessive. He'll be perfect."

Curran looked at me. I looked at Barabas. He bared even, sharp teeth. "Well, after that recommendation, how can I say no?"

"Who do you want for support?" I asked.

"George," Barabas said.

George's real name was Georgetta and she threatened to murder people who dared to actually use it. She was Mahon's daughter, and she served as the Pack's clerk of court.

"She knows the laws," Barabas said. "And she's the exact opposite of high-strung."

"If you take George, Mahon will want to go," Jim said.

"That's not a bad thing," Curran said. "Mahon is a hell of a fighter, and it will get him out of your hair. Besides, he's a bear. The Carpathians will respect that."

"Since I'm going," Barabas said. "Jezebel will also want to go."

"No." Jezebel, my other bouda nanny, had a hell of a temper.

"May I ask why?"

"Did you have an argument with Ethan on Wednesday?"

Barabas drew himself back. Ethan was his guy and their relationship had started out great but now was going off the rails fast. "It wasn't an argument. It was a heated discussion."

"Do you know how I found out about it?"

"I'm sure you will tell me."

"I saw Jezebel marching off with a determined look on her face, and I had to spend the next half an hour explaining to her that breaking Ethan's legs would not help your relationship. She reacts with overwhelming force to any insult. We're going to a place where we'll be outnumbered, insulted, and constantly provoked. One wrong punch from her and we're done."

"Point taken," Barabas said. "I'll break it to her gently."

"How about Keira?" Jim said.

Curran raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure?"


"Who's Keira?" I asked.

"My sister," Jim said.

"You have a sister?" I knew that Jim had a family. I'd just never met or seen any of them.

"He has three," Curran said.

"How come I never met her?"

"You have," Jim said. "You just don't remember because I didn't tell you who she was."

"Oh, so your family is only on a need-to-know basis, huh?"

He gave me a hard stare. "That's right."

When a joke flies past a sulking werejaguar, does it make a sound? "Are you sure you want to send your sister off across the ocean with us? Since I don't even rank high enough to meet her and all that."

"Keira is an Army vet," Jim said. "She's good and she won't turn on you."

I tried to picture a female version of Jim and got Jim in a dress instead. The image was disturbing.

"Did you at least ask her?" Curran asked.

"I know she'll go."

"Well, then she's in unless she says no."

I'd signed six things and my stack wasn't getting any smaller. It was like the paperwork was breeding while I worked.

"Where are you going to get a ship?" Jim asked.

"We can use a commercial freighter and catch a ride," Curran said.

"Won't work," Jim said. "Crossing the Atlantic is a bitch. You can get there in three weeks or so, but you may have to get out in a hurry, with ten drums of the panacea, and there is no guarantee the freighter will come back for another trip in time. You'll need to hire a ship and crew, and they will have to sit in port for about a month waiting for you."

"Then let's hire one," Curran said. "Or buy one. I don't care."

"I don't know if we can. It's not just a question of money. It's getting an experienced captain and crew on short notice." Jim drummed his fingers on the table and rose. "I need to get on that."

A young man walked up and stopped in the doorway. He moved with complete silence, like a ghost. Still lean, but on the way to filling out, he had short brown hair and the kind of face that made you stop in your tracks. Not that long ago, people stopped and stared because he was beautiful. Now they stopped because they weren't sure what a man with a face like that would do next.

Back when he was pretty, Jim had used him for covert work. People had discounted Derek Gaunt as a boy toy, but he missed nothing. He didn't exactly have a happy childhood. It made him ruthless, hard, and disciplined, and he dedicated himself to the task completely.

Then bad things happened and Derek's face paid the price. His good bone structure was still there, but trauma had thickened his clean lines and stripped any remnants of softness from his features. His brown eyes had turned hard and distant, and when he decided to be unfriendly, they went completely flat. I'd seen that kind of stare from veteran pit fighters. It said you weren't a human being. You were an object to be removed.

The stare worried me. Derek was a friend. Even if the entire Pack turned on me, he would stay in my corner. But the humor, the spark that used to make Derek who he was, was growing dimmer and dimmer. If it disappeared, Derek would be in a bad place. I'd been there and it was hard to claw your way out of that hole.

Curran pretended not to see him. Derek didn't say anything. He simply stood.

"Yes," Curran said without turning.

Derek nodded and walked away without a word. Now we had five: Barabas, George, Mahon, Derek, and tentatively Keira. The contract had specified that the Carpathians expected us to bring no more than fifteen people. Curran and I settled on ten, excluding ourselves. It was a nice number and it showed that we weren't afraid.

Jim was sitting there with that slightly glazed-over look in his eyes that usually meant that three fourths of his brain was engaged somewhere else.

"You okay?" I asked him.

He looked at me. "Where the hell am I going to find a ship . . . ?"

A guard approached the door.

"Yes?" I asked.

"Aunt B is here to speak with the Consort."

Meeting with the alpha of Clan Bouda was like sticking your hand into a garbage disposal. The switch could be flicked on at any second.

Curran got up. "I've got to go."

"Coward," I told him.

He grinned at me. "Later, baby. Come on, Jim, you have to go, too."

They took off down the hallway.

I looked at Barabas. "There is only one exit. How do they plan to get by her?"

"They'll hide in the guard room until she comes through. Shall I show Aunt B in?" Barabas asked.

"There is no escape, is there?"


I sighed. "Okay. Let's get this over with."

* * *

The alpha of Clan Bouda wore a cheery white sundress with an overlapping pattern of large red poppies. Her hair was rolled into a loose, carefree bun. A pair of sunglasses perched above her forehead. If you added a straw hat and a picnic basket, she would be all set.

Aunt B was in her early fifties, but the kind of fifties to which most women would aspire. Her skin was smooth, her makeup understated but expert, her figure generous but still athletic. Her lips smiled often, and her voice was all sweetness and cookies, but when she really looked at you, the hair on the back of your neck stood on end, because you realized that she was smart, ruthless, and dangerous as hell. She ruled the bouda clan, and anybody able to hold more than three dozen werehyenas in check should never be taken lightly. I'd seen her in action. Not many things gave me the creeps, but she managed. For now Aunt B was in my corner, but I had no delusions. Ours was a conditional kind of friendship: if I stopped being useful to her and hers, she'd forget my name.

Behind her, Andrea Nash, my best friend and the current beta female of Clan Bouda, walked into the room. Short, blond, and lethal, Andrea was engaged to Aunt B's son, Raphael. People really liked Andrea. She seemed nice and approachable. She also could shoot the dots off dominoes from great distances and turned into a monster with claws the size of my pinkies.

I smiled at Aunt B and pointed at the table. "Please, join me."

For shapeshifters, an offering of food held a certain significance. It could be a declaration of romantic interest, or it could be a confirmation of alpha status. Those who offered food declared themselves responsible for those who took it. Despite the fact that Aunt B had clued me in on the custom before I became the Consort, she had tried to feed me. Since I stood higher than Aunt B on the food chain, the tables had turned.

"Don't mind if I do." Aunt B seated herself on my right. Andrea took position behind her, as beta.

I glanced at her. "Really?"

Andrea sighed. "Oh fine, just don't tell anybody." She dropped into the chair next to me. I passed her a plate.

"What brings you up all these stairs?"

"I'm concerned for your well-being." Aunt B slid a piece of bacon into a pancake, folded it, and bit off a small piece. "And about the future of my clan, naturally."

Naturally. "Is it about the trip to the Black Sea?"

"Of course. Did Curran mention the Desandra incident?"

Here we go. "Yes."

"Did he also happen to mention that I was the one who had escorted that poor child back to her father?"

Oh boy. "No."

"How forgetful of him." Aunt B took another bite of the pancake. "Both my late husband and I had gone on that trip. His family was from the Iberian Peninsula. Half of our clan comes from Africa and the other half from Iberia, but I digress. Bottom line, I was there. I've met Jarek Kral, Desandra's father. He is a troglodyte."

I choked on my coffee.

"He is a ruthless, violent vandal without any shred of conscience."


"He came from nothing, so he's obsessed with building his 'royal line.' He's so hung up on passing down his own meager genes, it's making him crazy, and he wasn't playing with a full deck to begin with. Every single one of his children, except for Desandra, has gone loup or gotten themselves killed, so he sells and bargains with her like she was some prized heifer, and she goes right along with it. Desandra is a doormat."

Okay. This was clearly the day for frank revelations from the bouda clan.

I added more coffee to my cup. Curran was right. If Jarek was all about his dynasty, he shouldn't have been eager to kill his only daughter to keep some mountain pass. The Carpathian shapeshifters were playing a complicated game, and I had a feeling they planned on scoring goals by punting our severed heads.

Aunt B looked at her cup. Barabas filled it with coffee.

"Thank you, dear. Kate, you must understand the way you will be perceived. Curran is the Beast Lord, an oddity among alphas. Most alphas lead packs consisting of one species, with an occasional odd shapeshifter or two, and most of them have to fend off challenges from rivals from inside and outside their territory. Curran rules a huge prosperous pack and his competition here in the States is minimal. His territory is secure."

"That's because nobody here is dumb enough to take him on," Andrea said.

"Precisely. But the Carpathian alphas don't fully understand what he's capable of, and to them Curran presents an opportunity. They will want to either kill him for the bragging rights-a dangerous proposition, and most of them aren't suicidal-or benefit from an alliance with him. The point is, to them he has value. You, on the other hand, have no value at all. They don't know you and they win nothing by making friends with you. To them you're Curran's passing amusement that has grown into an obsession. A hindrance that should be removed, because the easiest way to Curran is through a woman."

"Or panacea." I still wasn't sure where she was going with this.

"I have my doubts about their willingness to actually part with panacea." Aunt B made another pancake wrap. "But I'm sure that the moment you step off that boat, you'll be a target. Can we agree on that?"

"If they want to dance, I'll be happy to oblige."

Aunt B sighed. "I have no doubt in your martial abilities, dear. I think all of us here know that you can hold your own. I'm worried about finding you at the bottom of some mountain ravine with your skull cracked open as you stumbled off the path in a 'regrettable' accident. Or the roof of one of those charming European cottages collapsing on you, completely by chance. Or someone accidentally shooting you in the back from half a mile away. It would be terrible. Everyone would express their condolences, and then they'd send a compassionate beautiful young girl wrapped in a pretty ribbon with a bow to Curran's bedroom to console him."

I leaned forward. "Do you honestly think he would take that consolation prize?"

She leaned toward me. "I don't want to find out. I also know that Mahon is thinking of going, and when the old bear wants something, he usually gets his way."

How the hell did she find out? "Do you have spies in Clan Heavy?"

"I have spies everywhere."

I looked at Andrea, who was hoarding bacon on her plate.

"She had tea with Mahon's wife," Andrea said.

Aunt B looked at her. "You and I need to work on your air of mystery."

Andrea shrugged. "She's my best friend. I won't lie to her."

I raised my fist and she bumped it with hers.

Aunt B sighed. "Mahon missed out on the last trip. He blames himself for our abject failure. He got to stay home and run the Pack and he nearly broke everything Curran worked so hard to build. Remind me sometime, and I'll tell you about what he did to the jackals. Mahon isn't your friend. He'll support you, because Curran chose you, but in his eyes the lowliest shapeshifter is more acceptable as Curran's mate than you are. It's not personal. Mahon had a lot of tragedy in his life, and it made him closed-minded where nonshapeshifters are concerned. He will never stoop to harming you, but if something unfortunate happened to you, he would breathe a sigh of relief and hope that Curran finds himself a nice shapeshifter girl."

Mahon and I had reached an understanding. We weren't the best of friends, but I doubted he'd stab me in the back. It just wasn't who he was. "Is there a cookie at the end of this lecture?"

"You need a friend on that team," Aunt B said.

"Which is why I'm going with you." Andrea stuffed some bacon in her mouth and chewed.

"What about you being beastkin?" Andrea's father began his life as an animal who had gained an ability to transform into a human. It made her beastkin, and some shapeshifters believed that people like her should be killed on sight.

"They don't care," Aunt B said. "In some ways the Europeans are more reactionary, and in others they're not. There are a lot of shapeshifters in Carpathians, and beastkin are rare but not an oddity. Andrea will be fine."

"And Raphael will be joining us," Andrea said. "So you get twice the backup. Nobody will be killing you on our watch."

So that was what this was all about. I got a cookie after all. "Aww. I had no idea you cared. I'm touched."

"You should be." Andrea bit another bacon slice. "I'm willing to abandon the tender embrace of my future mother-in-law for your sake."

"About that," Aunt B said. "I'm coming, too."

Dear God, the cookie was poisoned.

Andrea's mouth hung open and I got a view of half-eaten bacon I wished I could unsee.

"I take it that's the first time you've heard about it?" I asked.

She nodded. "That's not what we agreed on! We agreed that Raphael and I would be coming with her."

Aunt B shrugged. "That's the prerogative of the alpha. We can change our minds."

Andrea gaped at her. "What about the clan?"

"Leigh and Tybalt can run it in our absence. They will survive by themselves for three months."

"Curran won't go for it," I told her. I wasn't sure I would go for it.

"He will, if you ask him, dear. What I say here must not leave this room." Aunt B put her fork down. "Any Consort who is agreeable to Mahon is bad for us. If the bear has his way, you, Kate, will never carry Curran's child. And you"-she turned to Andrea-"you will never sit on the Pack Council. You're beastkin. He won't kill you, but you can bet that he'll do everything in his power to push you out. Your children-my grandchildren-will grow up knowing what it's like to be one step lower than everyone."

In an instant the funny blonde vanished, and a cold killer with a thousand-yard stare sat in Andrea's place. "Let him try."

"No!" Red, bright like backlit rubies, sparked in Aunt B's eyes. "We don't wait for him to try. There aren't enough of us to be reactive. We think a step ahead of our opponents. We force them to respond. You'll watch her back, Raphael will watch Curran's, and I'll look after our collective interests. You will need panacea, my dear. Trust me. I'll make sure we'll get it."

Andrea raised her finger and opened her mouth.

"That is final, Andrea."

Andrea clamped her mouth shut.

"Talk to Curran about it. Talk among yourselves. I will be packing. Thank you for a lovely breakfast."

Aunt B rose and left.

We waited until the doors down the hall shut behind her.

"That woman drives me crazy," Andrea growled.

"Is she for real?"

"She's been a bit obsessed lately," Andrea said. "Ever since I became a beta and then Raphael proposed, all she's been talking about is how she'll retire and spend her years cuddling grandchildren. These are theoretical grandchildren. Raphael and I aren't in a hurry. She says she is tired."

"Does she seem tired to you?"

"She'll outlive me. I'll be an old woman, and she'll be still promising to retire. I know that look. She's coming on this trip, whether we like it or not."

I sighed.

Andrea shook her head. "The Black Sea, right? That's the place where the Golden Fleece was and Jason grew an army out of dragon teeth?"

"That's the one."

"Whatever happened to Jason afterward?"

"He married Medea, a witch-princess who was from Colchis."

"Did they live happily ever after?"

"He left her for another woman, so she killed their children, chopped them into stew, and fed it to him."

Andrea put a half-eaten sausage link on her plate and pushed it away. "Well, at least I'll be there to watch your back."

And it already made me breathe easier. "Thank you."

Andrea grimaced. "You're welcome. I've got to go tell Raphael that his dear mother is coming with. He'll just love this new development."

* * *

I went to look for Curran. Knowing him, he was probably holed up somewhere with Jim trying to finalize the list of shapeshifters we would be taking with us. I bet that "somewhere" was Jim's not-so-secret lair two floors below the top level of the Keep.

Jim genuinely loved his job, and he somehow always found people who loved it as much as he did. They took the whole spy thing to the next level. Somehow simply walking through their hallway to the break room didn't seem enough. I should've gotten a black cloak and slunk dramatically, flashing my knives.

I was about fifteen feet from the break room when I heard Mahon's voice and stopped. ". . . not questioning her ability. She's proud, undisciplined, and she doesn't take anything from anybody. We're going into a shit storm. They will attack her appearance, your relationship, and her human status, and I question how well she will hold up under the stress."

Mahon and I would never see eye to eye. That was the long and short of it. I had decided that I didn't want or need his approval, so I'd stopped trying.

"Kate will be fine," Curran said.

"It's a bad idea."

"I heard you the first time," Curran said. "Kate is coming with us. You worry too much."

I walked into the room. Curran, Jim, and Mahon stood around a small kitchen table. Curran and Jim both had mugs, which probably contained Jim's patented coffee: black as tar and just as viscous. A piece of paper lay on the table-the list of ten names. Curran and Jim had hashed out the list of who was coming, and I was about to change it.

"I was just going," Mahon rumbled, and walked out of the room.

"Coffee?" Jim asked.

"No, thank you." I knew exactly what his coffee tasted like. "Aunt B, Raphael, and Andrea would like to be included."

Curran raised his eyebrows. "Why?"

"Aunt B says she's worried about my well-being."

"She's mostly worried about getting her paws on panacea," Jim said.

"Yeah, she mentioned it." I looked at Curran. "The way I look at it, we're taking ten people. You get five and I get five. If I take Aunt B, Raphael, Andrea, Barabas, and Derek, that will take care of my half."

"Fair enough," Curran said. "I can count Derek as one of mine. It will give you an extra spot."

"No, it's cool. You should take the extra spot."

"I honestly don't mind," Curran said.

"I don't mind either. You're giving me Aunt B. I probably owe you a spot for that."

"Damn it," Jim said, his face disgusted. "You're like an old married couple who found twenty bucks in a parking lot. 'You take it.' 'No, you take it.' I can't stand it." He put the coffee down and shook his head.

"Fine," Curran said. "If you want Derek, he's yours. That fills the list."

"That means we're axing Paola from the list. The rats will be pissed," Jim said.

"I'll handle the rats," Curran said.

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