Magic Rises Chapter 6

We arrived in the port of Gagra at dusk. First we saw the mountains, triangular low peaks sheathed in vibrant emerald green, as if blanketed with dense moss. The sunset behind us shifted to the right as the ship turned in to a sheltered harbor. The deep, almost purple waters of the Black Sea lightened to blue.

All twelve of us were there, on the deck. The shapeshifters looked uneasy. Even George, who usually met everything with a smile, seemed grim. She stood next to her father, hugging herself, as the wind stirred the dark spirals of her hair.

"Are you alright, cookie?" Mahon said.

"I have a bad feeling about this," she murmured. "That's all."

"Shall I hoist the flag?" Saiman asked.

"Yes," Curran said.

The gray-and-black striped flag of the Pack with a black lion paw on it rose up the mast.

The shore grew closer. The mountains wove in and out of the sea in gentle curves, soaking their roots in the water. The beach was a narrow strip of pebbled ground. Stone piers stretched into the waves, as if beckoning to us, and behind them, buildings of white stone sat perched on the side of the mountains, their colonnades facing the sea. They looked Greek to me, but most of what I knew about Greece came from books.

The water turned turquoise. The Rush slowed, then came to a stop.

"What are we waiting for?" I asked.

"A signal from the port," Saiman said. "I would suggest you gather your belongings."

We had already packed. Everything I intended to take with me was in a backpack, which Barabas promptly confiscated. Apparently as an alpha, I wasn't permitted to carry my own luggage.

Twenty minutes later a blue flare shot from the pier.

"We're clear to land," Saiman said. "Once you disembark, I will depart. I have business in Tuapse, Odessa, and Istanbul. I'll return within a week or so."

That suited me just fine. Saiman loved to amuse himself, and we'd have our hands full without trying to contain him.

Fifteen minutes later the crew was tying the Rush to the pier. I stood on the crowded deck, Curran next to me. George's anxiety infected me. I wanted off the ship. I wanted to see Desandra and get to work. Unfortunately if I started pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, I'd be immediately told by nine people that it wasn't proper.

"A welcoming committee," Raphael announced.

I turned. Fourteen people hurried toward us along the pier. Six pairs of men in dark coats, cinched at the waist. Most were dark-haired, tan, and lean. A few had short beards. Each carried a rifle over his shoulder and a dagger on his belt. They looked like a flock of dark ravens flying in two lines.

Two women walked in front of them. The first wore a dark blue blouse and jeans. She was about my age, dark-haired, her skin a light bronze, her hair put away into a braid. Her face was interesting, with large, bold features: big eyes, wide mouth, a sharply drawn nose. The girl next to her looked to be on the cusp of her twenties. Shorter, paler, with a slender waist, she wore a white dress. The wind tugged at the cascade of her chocolate-brown hair and her clothes, and the diaphanous fabric flared, making her appear ethereal and light. She all but floated above the rough concrete.

The girl waved. "Curran!"

She knew him.

Curran swore under his breath. "I'll be damned. They dragged her into this."

Apparently he knew her, too.

"Curran!" She waved again, standing on her toes, and hurried toward us.

"Lorelei?" Curran called out.

The girl smiled. Wow. The night just got a bit brighter.

The sailors lowered the gangplank and Curran started down the moment it clanged against the pier. Apparently he couldn't wait to meet her.

"Who is Lorelei?" I asked quietly.

"Lorelei Wilson," Mahon said. "Daughter of the Ice Fury's alpha."

Lorelei's father led the Alaskan pack, the biggest shapeshifter group in the United States. The one who had left with her mother when Wilson and his European wife divorced. Well, wasn't that just peachy.

"How do you tempt the Beast Lord?" Barabas murmured. "Simple. Offer him a shapeshifter princess."

Aunt B reached over and gently popped him on the back of his head.

"I hate her already," Andrea told me. "George hates her too, right, George?"

"I think she is adorable." George volunteered next to me. "We should give her milk and cookies, and if she promises to be quiet, she can sit at the big people's table."

"Show some respect," Mahon said. "She is the heir to Ice Fury."

George arched her eyebrows at him. "Really, Dad?"

On the pier, Curran reached the procession. The woman in blue bowed. Lorelei stepped forward, her arms raised for a hug, then stopped abruptly, as if catching herself, and also bowed. Curran said something. She smiled again.

I touched Slayer's hilt just to make sure it was there.

"Diplomatic, Kate," Barabas suggested quietly. "Diplomatic."

I leaned close to him. "Find out who invited her, what are her attachments, and if she has strings, who is pulling."

He nodded.

I went down the gangplank. The rough concrete was dry under my feet. I managed a slow, deliberate march and the pier seemed to last forever. Did it need to be this long? Were they going to park a carrier here?

I finally got within hearing range.

"You grew up," Curran was saying.

"It's been ten years." Lorelei's voice had a light trace of an accent. Not quite French, not quite Italian. "I just turned twenty-one."

I closed in on them. Lorelei had striking eyes, large and pale blue, framed in dense eyelashes. High cheekbones, softened by smooth skin and just a touch of roundness that came from being young; a narrow, petite nose, a full pink mouth. Her hair, a rich brown, fell down her shoulders in relaxed waves. She radiated youth, beauty, and health. She looked . . . fresh. I was only five years older than her, but standing next to her, I suddenly felt old.

Curran was looking at her. Not in the same way he looked at me, but he was looking. An odd feeling flared in me, hot and angry, prickling my throat from the inside with hot sharp needles, and I realized it was jealousy. I guess there was a first time for everything.

"Have you seen my father?" Lorelei asked. "How is he?"

"I saw him last year," Curran said. "He's the same as always: tough and ornery."

I came to stand next to him.

Lorelei raised her eyebrows. Her eyes widened, and a sheen of pale green rolled over her irises. "You must be the human Consort."

Yes, that's me, the human invalid. "My name is Kate."

"Kate," she repeated, as if tasting the word. "It is an honor to meet you."

Curran was smiling at her, that handsome hot smile that usually made my day better. Pushing Lorelei into the ocean wouldn't be diplomatic, even if I really wanted to do it. "Likewise."

"I've heard so much about you. But where are my manners? You must be hungry and tired."

The woman in blue stepped forward, moving with a shapeshifter's grace. Her eyes flashed green, catching the light from the ship. So these were the local werejackals Barabas had mentioned. Her eyes told me she'd been there and done that, and got a bloody T-shirt for her trouble.

The woman in blue bowed. "My name is Hibla. I'm here to be your guide." She indicated the men next to her. "We are Djigits of Gagra."

I had read up on Abkhazia. "Djigit" meant a skilled rider or a fierce warrior. The djigits looked back at me, the light of the evening sun catching their eyes. Yep, everyone was a shapeshifter except for me.

"We will escort you to your quarters when you are ready," Hibla said.

Curran waved at the ship. Our small pack began its descent down to the pier. A few moments and they stood behind us.

Lorelei bowed to Mahon. "Greetings to the Kodiak of Atlanta."

Mahon grinned into his beard. "What happened? Last time I saw you, you were this big." He held out his arm at his waist level.

Lorelei smiled. "I wasn't that short."

Mahon chuckled.

Aunt B was next, smiling so bright, I needed shades. Her voice was sweet enough to spread on toast. "So you are Mike Wilson's daughter. He must be so proud. What a beautiful girl you are."

"Thank you." Lorelei almost glowed.

Oh, you naive thing. When a bouda smiles at you, that's not a good sign. Especially that particular bouda.

"On behalf of Gagra, I'm here to extend the hospitality of my beautiful city to you," Hibla said. "Gagra welcomes you with all of its warmth, its lakes and waterfalls, its beaches and orchards. But be forewarned, if you come here with violent intentions, we will leave your corpses for the crows. We have no problem murdering every single one of you."

"Awesome speech," Keira told her. Jim's sister was smiling, and it didn't look friendly.

"Thank you. I worked hard on it. Please, follow me."

We trailed her down the pier and onto the road paved with stone. Hibla kept a brisk pace, reciting in a throaty, lightly accented voice. "Welcome to Abkhazia. The city of Gagra is the warmest place on the Black Sea. We have a wonderful microclimate with warm winters and pleasant summers. You will find the most exquisite landmarks here."

It was like she was reading an invisible travel guide.

Curran was looking at Lorelei as we walked.

"We grow a variety of fruit: peaches, persimmons, apricots, pomegranates, tangerines, lemons, and grapes. Our region is famous for its wines."

That's nice. Maybe I could find a wine bottle hard enough to hit Curran over the head and knock some sense into him.

"What pack do you serve?" Barabas asked.

"The Djigits of Gagra are not affiliated with any of our guests. Our allegiance is to the local pack and to the lord of the castle."

It was as if I had stepped into a different world. Across the ocean there were crumbling skyscrapers. Here there were castles and lords. Well, technically the Keep was kind of a castle and people did call Curran lord, but at home shapeshifters said it with simple efficiency, the way one would say sir. Here it was said with a solemn reverence.

"Is the lord of the castle a shapeshifter?" Curran asked.

"No, he's a human," Lorelei said.

"Lord Megobari is a friend," Hibla said. "Our economy was always driven by tourism. After the Shift, the region collapsed. We had been battered by natural disasters and war. Our city and our lives were in ruins. The Megobari family helped us. They built hospitals, they restored our roads, and they brought business to us. They don't ask anything in return except for our protection, which is freely and gladly given."

Okay. The Megobari family were clearly saints, and the local jackal pack would die to keep them breathing. Considering how the men glared at us, we had to make sure not to offend the host, because these djigit shapeshifters took their duties deadly seriously.

We all followed Hibla through the town. The feylanterns in Gagra glowed pale lavender, turning the solid stone of the buildings into a faint mirage. Magic flowed down the narrow, curving roads. Neat little streets, some cobbled, some still bearing crumbling pavement, ran along the side of the mountain, all sloping up, bordered by houses of all shapes and sizes. Persian, Greek, and modern architecture collided, like wakes from three different ships.

We passed a stately mansion that could've been built for a Moorish prince. It rose, flanked by palms, three stories of narrow arched windows, textured parapets, and stone wall carvings that looked as light and delicate as lace. At one point it must've been glowing white, but now it had shed its paint, and green walls showed through. A Greek building of Doric columns the color of sand followed, and immediately after, the ruins of a modern apartment building lay scattered over the mountain slope. The rest of the world seemed a thousand miles away. If we ever got tired of the Pack or living in anticipation of being found by Roland, we could find something like this, an isolated quiet corner of the world. Nobody would ever find us here.

Well, nobody but Lorelei.

"When you saw my father, did he mention me?"

"No," Curran told her. "It wasn't a social meeting. I'm sure he thinks of you often."

Another once-beautiful and now-gutted building. I counted the stories. Seven. Too tall. Magic hated tall modern buildings and attacked them with extreme prejudice. This building was definitely abandoned-the black holes of its empty windows showed a charred interior. When magic waves took down a structure, they gnawed it to dust first. This one showed no signs of post-Shift damage.

"What happened here?" I asked.

"War," Hibla said.

"Who did you fight with?" George asked.

"Ourselves. Abkhazia is on the border between Russia and Georgia. Fifty years ago they fought. Neighbors turned on their neighbors. Families split. Russia won. The city was cleansed." She spat the word as if it were studded with broken glass. "Everyone who was Georgian was killed or exiled." She nodded at another building with boarded-up windows. "The city was scarred forever. The magic has destroyed the other buildings, but the war ruins remain."

"Such a shame," Aunt B said. "Your city was beautiful."

"She will be beautiful again," Hibla said.

We kept climbing, higher and higher. The city road narrowed. Dense trees on both sides blocked the view, their branches braided together with vines. Tiny fireflies floated on the breeze. Abruptly the trees ended and we stepped out on a plaza. To the left, far below, endless sea lapped at the narrow ribbon of the shore. Straight ahead, mountains curved gently to the waves.

"The castle." Hibla pointed to the far right, behind us. I turned. An enormous stone castle crowned the top of the mountain, its stone walls rising like the natural extension of the living rock. Wide rectangular towers soared under pale blue roofs. The long narrow flags flying on the thin spires from the huge building of the main keep caught the last rays of the setting sun and glowed as if they were on fire.

"How old is the castle?" Mahon asked.

"We celebrated its twenty-year anniversary last fall."

Wow. Post-Shift. The amount of labor this structure took had to be staggering. How the hell did they even get that much stone up the mountain?

"Please." Hibla invited us with a sweep of her hand. "Up this road."

We went up the mountain at a brisk pace. Any faster and I'd have had to start running. The path was steep and the light was dying fast. Ten minutes later I broke a sweat. The shapeshifters around me seemed fresh as daisies.

"It must be very tiring for the Consort," Lorelei said next to me.

That was a bit unexpected. Was she actually concerned?

"The road is steep and she doesn't have the benefit of night vision."

She was looking at Curran. No, she wasn't checking if I was okay. She was talking about me as if I weren't even there. The way one would say, Is your little dog thirsty? Does she need a bowl of water?

"Perhaps a mount could be brought . . . ?" Lorelei suggested.

Out of a corner of my eye I saw both Barabas and George freeze. Yes, I know I've been insulted. Settle down. "Thank you for your concern. I can manage."

"Please, it's no trouble at all. You could hurt yourself. I know that even something minor like a twisted ankle would present a big problem for a human . . ."

Do not punch the pack princess; do not punch the pack princess . . .

"We wouldn't want you to struggle to keep up."

Okay, she went too far. I gave her a nice big smile.

Curran's face snapped into a neutral expression. "We just got here, baby. It's too early for you to start killing people."

Lorelei's eyes widened. "I didn't mean any offense."

Yeah, you did.

"I'm so sorry. I was only concerned. Please forgive me."

And now anything I said with any hint of hostility would make me look like an ass. She'd outmaneuvered me. Fine. There was always the next time. "Don't worry about it."

We rounded the bend. The castle loomed in front of us, shockingly huge. You could pack at least two Keeps within its walls. Thick walls, too. Had to be more than a couple of feet deep.

Hibla raised her head and howled, a high-pitched ghostly jackal howl. The sound rolled past us, streaming to the sky. Other howls answered. Metal clanged and the massive gates swung open.

Hibla bowed. "My lord and lady. Welcome to Castle Megobari."

I took a deep breath and walked next to Curran into the castle.

* * *

I was right. The walls were six feet thick. I counted six ballistas and four high-caliber antipersonnel guns on the walls, and that was just what I could see. This castle was built to withstand an assault from supernatural assailants. The Megobari family had some serious cash to throw around, and they'd used it to arm themselves to the teeth.

I elbowed Curran. "Their castle is bigger."

He winked at me. "Mine is taller. It's not the size of the castle. It's what you do with it."

No obvious guards manned the gate, but as we passed under the portcullis, I felt watched. I was a hundred percent sure that if I made a sudden movement, someone would send an arrow my way. The question was, would they bother with a warning shot? I didn't especially want to test that theory.

We crossed the inner courtyard and followed Hibla into the main building. After the city, I had half expected carvings and moldings, but the inside of the castle was as devoid of ornamentation as the outside. Brown stone, straight-as-an-arrow hallways, arched windows. No doors but some niches, positioned in such a way that if the castle was breached, a couple of fighters with ranged firepower could hold off a flood of attackers. Everything was functional, solid, and meticulously clean.

We passed a pair of shapeshifter men in the hallway, both blond. They stared at us with obvious hostility. I stared back. Looking is free. Touching will cost you an arm or a leg. Your choice.

"Your rooms are on the third floor," Hibla said. "Dinner will be served at ten."

"Late for a human," I said. In the Keep we typically ate dinner around nine. Shapeshifters weren't early risers, since they tended to stay up half of the night.

"The Megobari family respects the customs of its guests," Hibla said.

"I will see all of you at dinner." Lorelei said, looking directly at Curran.

"Looking forward to it," Curran said.

I felt an urge to stab something and squished it. Lorelei retreated down the hallway.

"Where is Desandra?" Curran asked.

"She is in her quarters, on the third floor also," Hibla said.

Curran turned. "Hibla, we need to see Desandra. Now."

Andrea passed her bag to Raphael and came to stand by me. Derek came to stand by Curran.

"Very well." Hibla said something in a lilting language.

The daggered dozen split: eight went with the rest of the group, led by an older man, and four came with us. We climbed the same stairs, and then Hibla turned right, while the rest of the shapeshifters turned left. We followed her to a metal door, guarded by a man and a woman in the same dark djigit coats. They moved aside as Hibla unlocked the door.

The stench of rotten citrus washed over me. Not good.

We stepped into a huge room. It was the size of my entire first apartment with all the walls knocked out. The vast ceiling rose to fully thirty feet in height, and gloom obscured the massive wooden beams running high above. Clothes lay strewn all over the floor, some shredded, some stained, punctuated by crumpled papers, food-stained plates, and shards of broken glass. A large wooden bed piled high with pillows and clumped blankets stood against one wall. A pregnant woman sat on it, her long hair tangled and dangling down over her purple dress. She looked up. Her irises shone with orange shapeshifter fluorescence.

I looked at Andrea. She looked back at me. I saw the exact same thought on her face: this job was going to suck.

"Hello, Desandra," Curran said.

"Fuck you."

"That's nice," Curran said. "It smells like rotten food in here."

Desandra shrugged. "Why are you here?"

No trace of an accent. She spoke like she was born in the United States.

"We're here to take care of you."

"That's bullshit and you know it." She bared her teeth. "You'll make the deal with whatever clan pays you more and sell these little parasites in my stomach. So go, make your deals. Nothing will change for me. Nothing ever changes for me."

"Are you done?" Curran asked.

"You could've taken me away from all this," she snarled.

"You wouldn't last a week in Atlanta," he said.

She stabbed her finger in my direction. "And she's better? After all of your grandstanding, and oh, I'm the Beast Lord and nobody is good enough for me, you mated with a human? A human? You're just like them." She waved her arm at Hibla and the djigits. "You don't give a fuck about what happens to your human wife if she's challenged. Why don't you just leave?"

Muscles played on Curran's jaw. "Think what you want, but I'll stay here and I will protect you."

"Do you really think they'll give you panacea for it? Come on, even you're not that stupid."

Gold flashed in Curran's irises. I had to stomp on this fast before it spiraled out of control.

I put my hand on Curran's shoulder. "I think it would be best if you gave us a little space."

He glanced at me.

"And if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you sent Doolittle up here."

Curran shook his head and looked at Derek. "Close the room. Nobody comes in unless Kate says so."

"Yes, my lord," Derek said.

Curran strode out of the room.

"That's right!" Desandra called out. "Walk away!"

Derek parked himself in the doorway.

I surveyed the bedroom. I'd seen this kind of mess before in Julie's room, when she went through an "I don't want to go to school" stage. "Hibla, why is this room dirty?"

"The lady won't permit us to clean it," Hibla said. "Her father ordered it cleaned once, and we did. The lady returned it to its previous state within a week."

Just as I'd thought. I turned to Desandra. "May I come closer?"

She stared at me.

I waited.

"Sure." She shrugged.

I crossed the room, stepping on clothes-there was no choice. Something crunched under my feet. I sat next to her on the bed.

"I get what you're doing. You don't feel in control of your life, but this bedroom is your space and you can do whatever you want here. Here you're in control. Unfortunately, having food on the floor isn't healthy. It rots. Mold grows on it and gets in your lungs." And the mess made her that much harder to guard.

She sneered at me. "I'm a shapeshifter."

"Shapeshifters are resistant to disease but not immune. Rotten food also gives bugs a place to breed, and it smells bad. Broken glass isn't safe for anyone to walk on. People who bring you food may not always be shapeshifters. They could be hurt, and they're only doing their job."

"I don't care."

"Having a dirty room doesn't really help you regain control over your life. That fight is out there." I pointed at the open door. "The mess just makes you appear deranged, which signals to people that it's okay to treat you as if you're not a person."

Desandra dug her hands into her matted hair. "What do you want from me?"

"May I have your permission to clean this room?"

"Why do you care?"

"Because I take pride in my job. Right now my job is to take care of you and keep you safe. This bedroom is unsafe for you and your future children. The mess also makes it difficult to protect you."

Desandra stared at me. "And what if I rip out your throat?"

I dug through my memory to fights with Julie. "Why would you do that? I didn't do anything mean to you."

"What if I say no?"

Andrea shrugged. "If you say no, then we won't clean the room. But I do have to tell you that the room smells bad, and that smell has settled in your clothes and hair."

At least in the United States, telling a shapeshifter they smelled bad was the ultimate insult. If that didn't motivate her, nothing would.

Desandra growled in my face.

"I'm on your side," I told her. "If you want to demonstrate that you're in control of yourself, you might want to take it into consideration."

"I don't want you to clean anything."

"Very well." I rose.

I made it ten steps to the door before she said, "Fine. Clean it."

"Thank you." I turned to Hibla. "Please bring trash bins, cleaning supplies, and hampers."

Desandra growled. "Are you always such a doormat?"


"So you always ask permission for everything?"

"She's the alpha of the Atlanta Pack," Derek said without turning. "She killed twenty-two shapeshifters in eleven days to be one, and she has the same power as the Beast Lord. She doesn't have to ask anyone's permission to do anything."

That wasn't exactly helpful. "I'm here for one purpose only: to keep you safe. I act in your best interests. I don't care who is born first and I won't be taking any bribes. I will do my best to accommodate you, but when your safety is on the line, I'll do whatever I need to do to keep you safe. If it means I have to hog-tie you and stuff you into a bathtub, I'll do it and not worry about your feelings."

Desandra sighed.

Hibla reappeared with bags and a cart filled with cleaning supplies, including gardening gloves. I put them on and began picking up the trash. Andrea joined me. Desandra watched us for about five minutes, trying to ignore the fact that we were there, then got off the bed and started stomping around and picking up her clothes.

That was how Doolittle found us, on our hands and knees, scooping up trash.

"What's going on?"

I straightened. "This is Dr. Doolittle. He is the Pack's medmage."

"Doolittle?" Desandra peered at him. "For real?"

"It's what I choose to call myself." Doolittle peered at her, then looked around the room. "Oh my. Now then, young lady, why are you dirty?"

Desandra sat on the floor and looked at him with a helpless expression on her face. "Because I like it."

"I do realize that this is a castle," Doolittle said in that patient soothing voice that made it impossible to say no. "However, I have used the restroom and it appears that modern plumbing was successfully installed."

"You can't make me clean myself," Desandra declared.

"My lady, you are not two years old. In fact, you appear to have reached maturity, and I'm reasonably certain that nobody can make you do anything you don't want to do. Come on up to the bed, please."

I held my breath. Desandra sighed again, got up off the floor, and sat on the bed. I exhaled quietly. Doolittle put his fingers on her wrist, counting her pulse.

"Incoming," Derek said.

"Who is it?"

"Jarek Kral."

I joined him at the doorway. Andrea moved to the middle of the room, between us and Desandra, and checked her crossbow.

The man I had seen in the photograph during Barabas's briefing strode down the hallway toward us. He seemed bigger in person, taller, wider, with the type of raw strength that usually meant a nasty fight.

I turned to Desandra. "Do you want to see your father?"

"Does it matter?" she asked, defeat plain on her face.

"It does to me."

"Then no. I don't want to see him."

Jarek Kral reached the door. This close the photograph really did him justice: same wavy brown hair, same large, roughly hewn face. His features could've been more refined, if they weren't tinted with cruelty. I knew the type. He was the type of man who could explode over the smallest thing and the explosion would be violent.

The sneer was bigger in person as well.

He reached the door. "Move," he said in an accented voice.

"Your daughter doesn't want to visit now," I said.

He stared at me with dark eyes under heavy lids, as if he just now realized I was blocking his way. "Who are you?

"You may call me Kate. I'm the Consort of the Beast Lord."

"Step aside." His eyes flashed green.


Behind me someone gasped.

His voice boomed. "Who told you you can do this?"

And here we go, straight into the lake of drama without taking our clothes off first. "You did." I pulled the contract from my pocket. "This document says I must serve your daughter's best interests. She determined it's in her best interests not to speak with you right now. This is your signature. It gives me all the authority I need."

He snatched the paper from my hand and ripped it.

"I have another copy," I said.

"I'll rip out your throat!" he snarled.

Like father, like daughter. "If you try, you won't live to see your grandchildren and my job will be done. I'll get to go home early. So please do try. I miss my house already."

His eyebrows came together. His upper lip trembled.

"An assault on the Consort will be treated as an act of war," Derek said.

A guttural snarl ripped from Jarek. Clearly, he hadn't bothered to look up "personal restraint" in the dictionary.

I reached behind me and put my hand on Slayer's hilt. "This is your last warning. Do not attempt to enter."

"What's going on?" A man ran up the stairs. He was blond, tall, and muscular, with features that would make an angel proud-Desandra's first husband, Radomil, from the Volkodavi pack. A woman followed him, slightly older than me, slender, with a wealth of golden hair braided back from her face.

"Stay out of this!" Jarek snarled. "You've done enough."

Radomil shot back something in a language I didn't understand. A torrent of words spilled from Jarek.

"You're a pig!" Radomil snarled back in English. "A filthy pig. Leave Desandra alone!"

"Get out of my way!" Jarek roared.

"If Kral doesn't abide by the agreement, why should we?" the blond woman said.

I let them scream at each other. It didn't affect me unless one of them tried to enter the room.

A tall, dark-haired man closed in on us. Where Radomil's face had a healthy, sun-tanned glow, this man radiated intelligence and weary awareness. He saw Jarek and Radomil. His dark eyebrows came together. His lips narrowed into a hard line. Yellow light rolled over his irises. Uh-oh.

The man accelerated. It had to be one of the Belve Ravennati brothers, but which one I couldn't tell.

Without slowing down, the Italian raised his fist and swung at Jarek. The big man moved aside and the Italian hammered a punch into Radomil instead. Radomil snarled like an animal and lunged at the Italian.

More people flooded the hallway from the left, an older dark-haired woman in the lead.

Jarek spat something. Radomil and the Italian grappled, snarling.

"If they change shape, we bar the door," I murmured.

Derek nodded.

Radomil shoved his opponent forward, tripping the Italian. The dark-haired man dropped to the ground with a lupine growl. Any moment now they'd go furry, and then things would be infinitely worse.

An eerie hyena cackle rolled through the hallway, a high-pitched, insane laugh that made you shiver.

Suddenly everyone stopped. Aunt B stood in the hallway.

"So this is what our European brothers and sisters have been reduced to," she said, her voice carrying through the castle. "Brawling in the hallways like spoiled schoolchildren. No wonder you had to send for our help."

Go, Aunt B!

The alpha of Clan Bouda looked at the dark-haired woman. "Hello, Isabella. It's been a long time."

"Hello, Beatrice," the dark-haired woman squeezed through her teeth.

"Is that your son on the floor?"

Isabella snapped a short command. The dark-haired man rolled to his feet and strode over to her. Isabella slapped him. The sound rang through the hallway. The Italians turned and left without another word.

I looked at Jarek Kral. He pointed his finger at me, opened his mouth, clamped it shut, turned, and walked away.

The blond woman said something to Radomil. He pulled away from her and stalked off.

"You must forgive my brother," the blond woman said. "He is a very kind man. He just doesn't understand politics." Her eyebrows came together. She pointed over my shoulder. "Who is that man?"

"He is a medic," Andrea answered.

"A medic? Is something wrong?"

"No," I said. "He is just performing a routine physical exam."

She actually looked concerned. "Is he going to draw blood? Desandra, I can hold your hand if you need me."

"It's fine," Desandra called.

I pulled my official Order voice out of the mental trunk where I'd kept it stashed for months, ever since I quit my tenure with the Knights of Merciful Aid. "I'm sorry, I have to ask you to leave."

"Fine, fine. Just . . . Don't torture her. She's been through enough." The woman turned and hurried down the stairs after Radomil. I glanced over my shoulder. Doolittle was holding a large syringe filled with pinkish liquid. Desandra petted her stomach.

"What is this for?" I asked.

"Amniocentesis," Doolittle said. "It's a routine screen of amniotic fluid. We want to make sure everything is proceeding as it's supposed to."

Aunt B approached us. "Well, that went nicely."

"You told my father no," Desandra said to me.


"He'll kill you for it," Desandra said.

"He may find it much harder than it appears, dear," Aunt B told her. "Dinner is coming up. Kate, you may want to change. You smell like the sea. You two go. Derek and I will watch after Desandra while you're changing."

I turned to Derek. "I will send Eduardo. When Desandra is ready to go, the two of you will follow her. Nobody comes in the room if she doesn't want to see them."

"Got it," Derek said.

"The rooms are just down the hall," Aunt B said. "Here, I'll walk partway with you then head back."

We strode down the hallway.

"I told you so," Aunt B said quietly.

"Told me what?"

"Please, Kate. The fresh young thing on the pier? She even wore white."


"Nothing at all, dear. Just reflecting on the color. How virginal and bridal."

Yes. I'd noticed. If they were trying to influence Curran by shoving Lorelei under his nose, they weren't very subtle about it.

"Yours is the first door on the right. Andrea, you and Raphael are across from them. The rest of us are just down the hall," Aunt B said. "The sound really carries through here. You can hear practically everything, so if you call we'll come running."

Got it. Nothing said in the rooms would be private, and our hosts were likely listening really hard. "Good to know."

"I've checked and the dinner is a formal affair. Do wear a dress, Kate."

I killed a growl, and Andrea and I went down the hallway.

"We've worked worse jobs," Andrea said.

"Mm-hm. This whole place doesn't feel right to me."

"I'm with you," she said.

We reached my door. I waited until Andrea opened hers across the hall and went inside, and then I stepped into our room and shut the door behind me.

A sizable room, as far as bedrooms went, with tapestries and rugs on the stone walls. An open door offered access to the bathroom on the left. A large wooden poster canopy bed waited in the center, complete with silk pillows and gauzy purple curtains. It looked like something out of the historical romances Andrea liked to read.

Curran came out of the bathroom.

I nodded at the bed. "Someone robbed an ancient music video."

"I know. It creaks like a sonovabitch, too."

"Great. If we decide to make love, we might as well just get down to it in the hallway. Half of the castle will know about it anyway."

Curran closed the distance between us. His voice was a quiet whisper in my ear. "There are no peepholes that I can see, but someone is listening to us. I heard him breathing through the wall."

So we were trapped in this stone cage, with a pack of unstable shapeshifters, trying to protect a woman in need of urgent psychological help, and spies were listening to our every breath.

I put my arms around Curran and leaned my head against his shoulder. "Have I ever told you how much I like the Keep?"


"I love it."

He grinned. "Even the stairs?"

"Especially the stairs." The stairs separated our top floor from everybody else, and the walls were soundproof.

He kissed me. His lips sealed my mouth and the world stopped for a long moment. When we came up for air, I didn't care if anybody was listening to us. Little golden sparks danced in Curran's eyes. He didn't care either.

"Do we have time?" he asked.

I looked at the clock. Twenty before ten. "No. We'll be late."

"Tonight, then."

I grinned at him. "It's a date."

Guard Desandra, get the panacea, go home. A simple plan. All we had to do was get through it.

* * *

The dinner took place in a colossal great hall, and I walked into it with my hand on Curran's arm. The Beast Lord wore a black suit and a gray shirt. Curran always stopped me in my tracks, whether he wore jeans and a T-shirt, sweatpants, or nothing at all, but this was new. Custom-cut, the suit flattered him while allowing for freedom of movement, and if he had to change shape, the weak seams ensured that the suit would come apart with minimal effort.

In all of our time together I had seen him in a formal suit exactly twice, including today. Curran could be described in many ways: dangerous, powerful . . . insufferable. "Elegant" usually wasn't one of the adjectives used, and as he walked next to me, I wished I had a camera so I could commemorate the moment. And then blackmail him with it.

He shrugged again.

"You keep doing it, the suit will fall apart."

"I should've worn jeans."

"Then I'd look ridiculous next to you." I should've worn jeans, too.

"Baby, you never look ridiculous."

"Smart man," Aunt B volunteered behind us.

I wore a black dress. Like Curran's suit, it was custom-made for me by the Pack's tailors specifically for the trip. The elastic fabric hugged me like a glove, giving a deceiving impression that it was constraining. The artfully draped skirt fell in straight lines, hiding the fact that it opened enough to let me kick an attacker taller than me in the head, and the diagonal strap over my right shoulder ensured that the dress wouldn't fall off if I had to move fast. The dress also had to be doing wonders for my butt, because Curran had managed to run his hand down my back twice since we left our rooms.

But even the best dress offered no way to hide Slayer, so I didn't bother. The dress came with a built-in fabric sheath, lined with leather, and my sword rested securely against my back. I'd left my hair braided. Plain black shoes with a low heel fit my feet like slippers. I would've felt better in my boots, but boots didn't go with the dress. Even I had standards.

I did have to surrender my knives, but I wore a bracelet on each wrist and a long necklace, all made of braided silver. They looked like strips of chain mail and weighed as much. Curran insisted on my new fancy jewelry. Given that we were trapped in a castle filled with hostile shapeshifters I didn't fight him on it.

Behind us Desandra walked in, sandwiched between Barabas and Derek. Aunt B, Mahon, and George followed, then Andrea and Raphael. Raphael was a picture of urbane elegance in black, while Andrea wore a deep rust-red. It looked like blood and she was a knockout.

Doolittle declined to go to dinner and remained behind in his quarters, and I asked Eduardo and Keira to stay with him as well. This place was making me paranoid. They locked themselves in and barred the door before we left. Hopefully Keira wouldn't decide to explore her buffalo steak fantasies.

Vast, with towering walls, the great hall seemed cavernous. Four big tables, each large enough to seat at least twenty people, stood in two long lines, leaving a large space between them. Toward the opposite end of the chamber, a head table, shaped like a rectangular horseshoe, waited on a raised platform.

I scanned the room, looking for problems. Three exits: the one we just came through, one on the left, and one on the right, each manned by a pair of djigits. No matter where I sat, unless it was at the head table, my back would be to one of the doors. Ugh.

On the left a discreet stairway led to a minstrel's gallery, a high indoor balcony that spanned the length of the entire left wall. Shadows shrouded the gallery. I saw no movement, but if I wanted to kill someone, I'd put a sniper up there.

None of this was making me feel warm and fuzzy.

About fifty people milled about the hall, some talking in small groups, others by themselves. Men wore suits and tuxedos. Women wore gowns. Most eyes flashed with a shapeshifter glow. People turned and looked at us, looked at Curran, looked at the handle of my sword protruding over my shoulder. A few men looked lower at my chest. They were shapeshifters and notoriously difficult to kill, while I was a human. The fact that I carried a sharpened strip of metal on my back didn't worry them any. I was an oddity, the human mate. They appraised me like a horse at a livestock market, and my breasts were clearly making a bigger impression than my sword.

Curran locked his teeth.

"We just got here," I whispered. "It's too early for you to start killing people."

"It's never too early for me," he said.

"Double standard much?"

Hibla met us halfway across the hall and led us to our seats. Curran and I sat at the head table on the right side of an oversized wooden chair that wanted very much to be a throne and had to belong to the head of the table. Place of honor. Whoop-de-doo. At least my back was to a solid wall.

Curran took his seat, I sat next to him, Desandra sat next to me, and Andrea parked herself on the other side of Desandra and looked at the balcony. Raphael sat next to her, and Mahon and Aunt B sat next to him. George stood behind her father. Barabas stood behind me.

"You're hovering," I told him.

"I'm supposed to hover."

I settled in the large chair. The minstrel's gallery loomed above us to the right. It bothered me. I couldn't see into it. If someone shot at us, I wouldn't know until it was too late. We might as well have pinned a target to Desandra's head.


Our guide leaned toward me. "Yes, lady?"

"Could you tell me who chose these seats?"

"Lord Megobari."

Great. Changing seats would likely offend him to death, and besides, all seats at this table offered a great target from the gallery.

Curran leaned to me. "What's the matter?"

"I don't like the gallery. She isn't safe."

People turned toward an entrance directly across from us.

"Someone's coming," Barabas murmured.

Curran inhaled. "Kral."

Jarek Kral walked into the room. He wore a black suit and walked as if everyone in the room owed him allegiance. A few people glared back, while others tried to fade into the woodwork. Four men walked behind him, moving in unison, a well-honed unit. The way they scanned the room for threats telegraphed experience. Wasn't surprising. Jarek didn't strike me as the type to make friends.

Jarek made a beeline for our table and took a seat on the other side of the throne. Two of his guys sat next to him, the other two stood behind him. Barabas had given us a basic rundown on Kral's people. This was his inner circle: two brothers with the last name Guba, a middle-aged bald man who looked like he could run through solid walls, and Renok, Kral's second-in-command, a tall shapeshifter in his midthirties with a boxer's jaw contoured by a short dark beard.

Jarek looked at Curran. "I see you grew up, boy."

Did he just call Curran boy? Yes, he did.

"I see you grew old," Curran said. "You look smaller than I remember."

"I'm still big enough for you."

"You never were, and now you never will be. You're getting on, Jarek."

"Last time I wanted to kill you, but you had Wilson with you. Now you're all alone. I will kill you this time." Jarek smiled, a controlled baring of teeth.

Curran smiled back. "I wish you'd scrape enough balls together to try. I'm already bored."

If Jarek managed to provoke Curran into physical violence, the fault would be with Curran. Even if Curran won, we'd have to go home empty-handed and Desandra likely wouldn't live long enough to give birth.

The Belve Ravennati entered the room and took their seats on the left side of the horseshoe. Aunt B waved at Isabella. Isabella studiously ignored her. Her two sons sat by her. The Italian brothers looked very similar: both dark-haired, both with intelligent, sharp eyes and a carefully shaped sprinkling of dark stubble on their jaws. The taller, leaner one had striking eyes, pale hazel and framed with dark eyelashes. They stood out in sharp contrast to his nearly black hair. The other was shorter, more compact, with dark eyes. One of them was Gerardo and the other Ignazio, but I couldn't remember which was which. I couldn't recall which had married Desandra either, but I was pretty sure the shorter of the brothers was the one who got slapped.

I leaned over to Desandra. "Which one is the father?"

"The handsome one," she said, her voice filled with mourning.

Thanks, that helps a lot. "Hazel eyes or brown?"

"Hazel. Gerardo."

So the shorter, slapped one, was Ignazio.

A moment later the Volkodavi came through the right exit and took their seats on the right side of the horseshoe. Good idea. Minimized the chances of them lunging across the table at the Belve Ravennati and trying to murder each other with their forks.

People were taking their seats. The dinner was about to start.

"You're not fit to sit at this table," Jarek said.

Round two.

"Make me move," Curran said.

"You're nothing. You will always be nothing," Jarek said. "Weak like your father."

You bastard. I reached over under the table and touched Curran's hand. He squeezed my fingers.

"My father has a son who rules the largest pack in the Southeast of the United States," Curran said. "How big is Budek's territory? Oh wait. Your son doesn't have a territory, because you murdered him."

A string of servants came in, rolling enormous barrels.

"Is that beer in the barrels?"

"They're called casks, Kate," Barabas said quietly behind me. "And I believe they're full of wine."

Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, treated alcohol like poison and tried to get rid of it the moment it hit the bloodstream. But if a shapeshifters drank fast enough and in large volume, they managed to hit a buzzed stage. Besides, there were some humans in the hall. This place already was a pressure cooker: one wrong word and it would explode. Why the hell would anyone want to add alcohol to this mix?

"The only reason you rule at all is because your country is filled with gutless dogs," Jarek said. "Here you're not fit to scrape shit off my boots. Come over here and I'll teach you what a real alpha is."

He just wouldn't shut the hell up.

"You've been scheming and plotting for thirty years and your territory will fit into mine ten times," Curran said, his tone slightly bored. "I could give the same amount away and not miss it."

On the left Gerardo was glaring at Radomil across the table. The wine barrels kept coming in. Could this get any worse?

"You had a chance to join me," Jarek said. "You spat on it. And you think you can come here and tell me what to do with my daughter?"

"Make way for the lord of the castle," a man called out. The djigits at the entrance directly opposite us came to attention.

"Your daughter is a grown woman," Curran said. "She can speak for herself."

"Until she belongs to another man, she is mine to do with as I please," Jarek said.

That does it. I leaned forward. "Hey, you. Either put your claws where your mouth is or shut the fuck up. Nobody wants to hear you yip."

Jarek's eyes bulged. Green flared in the depths of his irises, an insane hot flame. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

"Yes, just like that," I told him. "Less talking, more quiet."

It dawned on me that Curran was sitting completely still, staring straight ahead with focused intensity.

"Lord Megobari," a man announced.

I turned. At the far entrance, between two djigits, Hugh d'Ambray strode into the hall.

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