She hesitated. "I'm not supposed to disclose this. There's a man. His name is Roland..."
I almost punched the wall. "What is he doing that's so damn crucial? What, is he building another tower? It will fall like all his other ones. Or did his eye finally grow back and he decided to have a battle to celebrate?"
Andrea gently closed her muzzle. "Kate? How do you know that?"
"Even I don't rank high enough to know about the eye and the towers. I was only told because I would be staying behind alone. You're not even a knight. How do you know this?"
How do I fix this? I have to kill her. Wait, I can't kill her. She's my friend.
"Are you planning on walking into Ted's office after the flare and telling him that you're beastkin?"
She winced. "No. He'd throw me out. The Order is all I know."
I nodded. "You have your secrets and I have mine. I didn't say anything about Roland and you didn't hear anything." I offered her my hand. "Deal?"
She hesitated only for a moment. Her fingers grasped mine and I was relieved by their strength. "And I'm not a beastkin. Deal."
I found Jim in the next room. He sat in the bed, propped up by a pillow, and sharpened a short thick knife with a whetstone.
"You fucking owe me." He showed me his teeth in an ugly snarl. "You had a beastkin buddy. Didn't tell me. Made me look like I don't know my business. Made me look like a fool."
I came in and sat on the edge of his blanket.
"Get the fuck off my bed."
I sighed. "How are the legs?"
"Doc says I'll be walking by tomorrow." He pointed the knife at me. "Don't change the fucking subject."
The same injury would take at least two weeks to heal during normal magic.
"You remember that time you put a rat scout into an apartment above me to spy on me and Crest?" The scout who had heard everything that went on between me and Crest.
"What about him?"
He shook his head and went back to sharpening his knife.
"You still here?" he asked a few seconds later.
"Leaving as we speak." I got up. "Jim...Why did you go?"
He gave me his hard stare. "He promised the child she would be safe. The alpha stands by his word and the Pack stands by the alpha. That's how it works."
He went back to his knife, signaling the end of the conversation.
I NEEDED TO FIND A SINK AND SPLASH SOME WATER on my face. A small room to the left looked promising. I entered. No bathroom. No furniture, either. Just a straight shot to a square balcony connected to something with an outside stairwell leading to the left.
The door barely had a chance to close behind me before it flew open with a bang. Curran appeared in the doorway. He was human again, but only in shape. Sweat drenched his face. His hands gripped the door frame as if they still had claws. His yellow eyes glowed with feral need. He snarled, his face wrinkling, and rushed past me to the balcony. He burst outside, leaned on the stone rail with both hands, and stared down below.
I followed and rested on the rail next to him. A staircase led up to a parapet connecting the main Keep with a half-built tower to the left. When they finally finished this place, they would have to rename it. "Keep" simply didn't do it. It begged for a more appropriate name like Doom Bastion of Shapeshifter Superiority. Probably with a big sign underscoring the sentiment, in case some dummy failed to get it. Pack to the Outside World: We don't like you. Stay out!
And Curran would brood and stalk along the walls.
"Who won?" I knew he would answer that one.
"Threw him into the smaller water tower. He doesn't like water. He shrunk."
Below us the trees shivered in the morning breeze.
"Do you want it to be your turn now? Do you want to tell me what an idiot I am?" The violence in his voice sent shivers down my spine.
"Hold on, let me make sure there are no water towers around..."
He dragged his fingers across the stone rail. If he'd still had his claws, they would've left white scratches.
"You put that damn thing in my hand and I gave it away. I've got no necklace, no kid, two of my people dead, three are in the medward. There is a ward spell over the Honeycomb Gap and scouts tell me it's full of monsters. Impressive performance all around. Go on. Take a shot."
"I would've traded the necklace for Julie in a heartbeat."
He glanced at me. The next moment I was pinned against the wall, his teeth an inch from my carotid. He sucked in my scent, his eyes still flooded with molten gold. His voice was a contained storm. "Knowing all I know now, I would do it again."
"So would I. Let go of me."
He released me and stepped back.
"If you can't save a child, what's the point of it all?" I told him. "Julie's worth saving, and I don't want to buy my safety with her blood. I'd die first."
I leaned against the wall. "I should've put it all together sooner. Better yet, I should've left her with you. That little shit Red couldn't have taken her out of the Keep. I'm sick of being a day late and a dollar short."
Our stares connected and we were quiet for a long minute, united by our misery. At least he understood me and I understood him.
"A fine pair we make," he said.
In the yard I saw a small figure stumble from the ruins of the water tower. I nodded at him. "He screwed up, too. Bran teleported all over the place like a nitwit looking for the cauldron. It was right there under the pile of crates. The first place he should've looked. We all got outsmarted by a guy with tentacles and his brood of undead mermaids."
Curran shrugged his massive shoulders. "It's never fucking simple. Just once I want it to be easy and neat. But no, there is never a good decision. I pick what I can live with."
We both knew he blamed himself for every last scratch his people got.
The sun broke above the treetops, flooding the world with sunshine, but the staircase shielded us and we remained in the cool blue shadow. Curran pushed away from the stone. "I take it, that gray bubble in the Gap will burst soon?"
"Fifteen hours from the moment it appeared. If Bran can be trusted."
"So around seven tonight. The thief..."
"I don't give a damn what his name is. He can close the cauldron, you said. What will that do?"
"How much do you know about what's going on?"
"Everything you told Andrea."