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As we moved through the hallway, the shapeshifters fell in behind us. Someone whistled. Someone catcalled. I kept walking.

Ahead an arch offered a view of a large room. A familiar grouping of cushioned seats and coffee tables waited-Hugh clearly believed that if a furniture set did its job, there was no reason to get creative. Jarek Kral sprawled on the love seat, watching me walk toward him. His inner circle flanked the seat. A tall blond-one of the two brothers who followed Jarek around-an older man with a shaved head and muscles like a heavyweight prizefighter, and Renok, my buddy, dark-haired, with a short beard, and a deep inborn viciousness in his eyes.

This would be interesting.

"Curran's whore comes to visit us," Jarek said in accented English.

The three men laughed as if on cue. I glanced at Mahon. "You really shouldn't let him talk to you like that."

Mahon's bushy eyebrows came together.

I sat in the chair. "Your daughter was attacked last night."


"Looking for some fatherly reactions here: is she okay, was she hurt?" I leaned forward. "You know, things men ask when their children are attacked."

Jarek shrugged. "Why should I worry? That's why we hired you. To keep my precious daughter safe."

"Where were you last night at midnight?"

"Here. Wasn't I?" Jarek spread his arms.

"Yes," the older bald man said.

"Here," Renok said and winked.

Jarek Kral leaned toward me. Oh boy. Here we go. "What does he see in you?" His tone was light, almost conversational. "You're not a shapeshifter, you're not powerful, and you're not beautiful. No body. No face."

Behind me Barabas took a sharp breath.

"Do you give good sex?" Jarek Kral propped his elbow on the table and rested his chin on his fist. "Do you suck his cock?"

Oh look, someone looked up a couple of dirty words in the English dictionary. Cute.

Jarek leaned a little forward, happy with himself. "Does he like his c**k sucked? Or did you not do a good job? Is that why your face looks like this?"

Amateur. "Why are you so curious about Curran's cock? Are you looking for something new to suck? You're welcome to ask him, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't like you like that."

The three men drew back. Jarek blinked. Barabas laughed under his breath.

"Try to pay attention," I told him. "I will speak slowly, so you can understand. Your daughter was attacked. There are strange creatures in this castle. We have a blood test that can identify them. Will you let us test your blood?"

Jarek laughed.

He didn't seem nervous, but he was so animated, I couldn't tell if he was reacting at all.

"Maybe we should test your blood." Renok grabbed my left arm. He was fast, but I saw him move and I let him do it. His fingers closed on my wrist. He pulled my arm, bending it at the elbow to expose the inside of the forearm. I waited half a second to make sure everyone saw it and drove the flat palm of my right hand against his wrist. He was strong, but he didn't expect me to be. His hold slipped. I grabbed his wrist with my right hand and twisted it, wrenching his arm. He bent forward, trying to keep his shoulder in its socket. I yanked a throwing knife out of my sheath and drove it through his trapezius muscle at the top of his shoulder, nailing him to the coffee table with a knife.

The whole thing took half a breath.

"So I take it, that's a no on the blood?" I asked.

Jarek Kral stared at me.

A rough, jagged growl tore from Renok, part fury, part pain. He strained.

Barabas leaned forward and put his hand on Renok's neck. The shapeshifter went still.

I rose. "I see no women in your party. That's a mistake. Desandra is her father's daughter. She fought last night and she enjoyed it. She will kill you one day, and then she'll go on to have children who'll never know your name. Your pathetic attempt at a dynasty will die with you."

The blond and the prizefighter jumped to their feet. Mahon shook his head. "Think about what you're doing," he said quietly, his voice deep with menace.

Jarek said something. The wolves backed away.

I rose and walked out. Mahon and Barabas followed me.

I marched down the hallway heading toward the stairs at a near run. Outside the windows the day was bright: golden sunshine, blue sky, pleasant wind . . . I wanted to punch the happy day in the face, grab it by the hair, and beat it until it told me what the hell it was so happy about. I was keyed up too high and I was sick of this place. Sick of shapeshifters, sick of their politics, and sick of holding myself back. Thinking about Curran just poured more gasoline on the fire. I had to fix myself and I had to do it now, before I exploded.

We came to a padded bench set in the shallow nook.

"Let's sit here a minute," Mahon said.

I didn't want to sit. I wanted to punch something.

"Please," Mahon said.

Fine. I sat. He sat on the other end. Barabas leaned against the wall next to me.

"I was born before the Shift," Mahon said. "For me, magic changed everything. Martha is my second wife. I buried my first and I buried our children. I have no love for 'normal' people. To me, I'm normal. I'm a shapeshifter, but I'm human. Things that I endured were done to me by 'normal' humans, and they did them because they never tried to understand me and mine, and even if they did, they couldn't. I didn't belong with them and they sure as hell didn't belong with me or my family. There was no common ground between us."

Why was he telling me this? I already felt like I'd been through a gauntlet. I didn't need extra punches.

"You'll never be a shapeshifter," Mahon said. "If you live with us for a hundred years, a newborn werebear will be more of a shapeshifter than you are."

Barabas looked at him. "Enough. That back there was plenty. She doesn't need any more shit today."

"Let me finish," Mahon said, his voice calm. "You'll never fully understand what it's like and we'll never fully understand you. But it doesn't matter. You're Pack."

I blinked. I must've misheard.

"Why take their abuse?" Mahon asked. "I know it goes against your nature."

"Because it's not about me. It's about the panacea, our people, and a pregnant woman. I can make them eat their words, but it will derail everything. They're counting on me blowing my gasket, and playing to their expectations helps them and hurts us. I would rather win big at the end than win small right now."

"And that's why no matter what happens, you will always be Pack. Because you have that loyalty and restraint." Mahon raised his hands, as if holding an invisible ball. "The Pack is bigger than all of us. It's an institution. A thing built on self-sacrifice. We're a violent breed. To exist in peace, we have to sacrifice that violence. We have to praise control and discipline, and it starts at the top. Having an alpha who is a loose cannon is worse than having no alpha at all. The world is falling around us in pieces and will be for some time. It's all about stability now, about giving people a safe place, a reassuring routine, so they don't feel frightened and so they don't feel the need to resort to violence, because if we go down that road, we'll either self-destruct or be exterminated. That's why we build so many safeguards. In time, I'd like to see things change. I'd like the challenges to go away. We lose too many good people to those. But it will come with time, a long time, perhaps years, perhaps generations, and it will start at the top. We lead by example."