His voice was low and gentle. He talked like a well-fed wolf in a good mood. I smiled at him.
"If we'd met, you'd know I'm not a lady."
His eyes narrowed. "And yet you seem familiar somehow. I can't shed the feeling I have seen you before. Perhaps we could speak someplace privately - "
"You don't have to speak to him," Rene cut in. Her color had gone pale. She swallowed.
Scared, I realized. She was scared and she wasn't used to dealing with it.
"Remember our arrangement. You're welcome to observe and that's it. We aren't a training ground for you. If you want to contact fighters outside the Arena, it's your business. Don't recruit them here. Especially in front of me."
"Are you a fighter, my lady?"
And we're back to the "lady" again. "Occasionally."
"She's on a team and you're holding up her processing." Rene stared at him.
The man glanced at her. The command in his glare was unmistakable. Rene went white as a sheet but stood her ground. He smiled amicably, bowed to us, and went on, the blond and Nick behind him.
Rene stared after him with undisguised hatred.
"What's his name?" I asked Rene.
"Bastard," Rene murmured, scanning the papers. "He also goes by Hugh d'Ambray."
The world fell apart.
Hugh d'Ambray. Preceptor of the Order of Iron Dogs. My adoptive father, Voron's, best pupil and successor. Hugh d'Ambray, Roland's Warlord.
It couldn't be a coincidence. Everyone knew Roland would eventually seek to expand his territory. Right now he held an area that cut diagonally through Iowa to North Dakota . Voron had explained it to me: it was land that nobody wanted, where Roland could sit and build up his forces without presenting enough of a threat to warrant an invasion. Eventually, when his forces grew numerous, he would spread east or west.
I tried to think like Roland. I was raised by Voron, damn it. I should be able to slide into Roland's head. What did he want in Atlanta?
The Pack. Of course. Over the past year, the Pack had grown in size. It was now the second largest in North America. If I were Roland, I would seek to eliminate it now, before it grew any stronger. He didn't wish to involve the People, his cohorts, because their actions would be tracked back to him. No, he hired rakshasas instead. Rakshasas were dumb and vicious. He could use them like a club to clobber the Pack. They wouldn't win, but the Pack would be weakened. And his Warlord was here to make sure things went smoothly.
Hugh d'Ambray would watch me in the Pit. He might recognize my technique. He would report to Roland, who would put two and two together and come looking for me.
The doors were right behind me. Fifteen steps and I would be out of the building. A minute and I would be on my horse, riding into the night. I could vanish and they would never find me.
And abandon the six people who counted on me to watch their back.
Walking away was so easy. I looked up.
"You look like your house burned down," Rene observed.
"Just reflecting on the fact that when the Universe punches you in the teeth, it never just lets you fall down. It kicks you in the ribs a couple of times and dumps mud on your head."
"If you're lucky, it's mud. Sign here." Rene stuck a form in a clipboard in front of me.
"Waives all responsibility for your death in the Pit."
I signed. Within two minutes I was weaving my way through the bottom level, accompanied by a somber Red Guard. The worry sat like a ball of ice in the pit of my stomach. I had no trouble finding the right room - I heard Andrea's voice. "Sling?"
"It's just a figure of speech," Raphael said.
I ducked into the room and saw her before a table. Firearms covered the table's surface: her two prized SIG-SAUERS, a couple of Colts, Beretta, Smith & Wesson . . . She had enough weapons to hold off a small army. Raphael watched her from the bench, his face an odd meld of awe and worry.
Andrea saw me and grinned. "You know what they can do with their sling? They can stick it up their asses!"
I tried to sound smart. "Well, technically it's more of a ranged weapon, Andrea . . ."
"Screw you! I'm not going out there with a little rag and a pebble."
Raphael looked a little scared.
I crossed the room to stow my gear on the shelves. The double doors to the bedroom were wide open and I saw Derek in one of the bunks reading a book. Doolittle hovered next to him, with a concerned look that would've done a mother hen proud.
"He's hovering," Derek said.
"I'm not hovering," Doolittle grumbled.
Derek looked at me.
"You're definitely hovering," I said. "So you decided to join us after all? I thought you said we were all fools."
"No fool like an old fool . . ." Derek murmured.
Doolittle made a long, pissed-off sound, like the growl of a bear - if the bear was about a foot tall.
"Badger!" I smiled. It fit him.
Derek rolled his eyes. "What, you just now figured it out? It's not like you can miss the musk . . ."
"Now that was uncalled for." Doolittle shook his head. "Ungrateful wretch."
I pulled a blanket and a pillow from an unclaimed bunk and took myself to an empty corner.
"What's wrong with the bed?" Derek asked.
"I don't sleep well with others." I fixed my bed on the floor. "No, I take it back; I sleep well. I just might wake up with my sword in your gut. Of course, if it is you, I'd probably roll over and go back to dreamland."
Jim came into the room, approached the beds, tensed, and hopped onto the top bunk from the floor. From there he had an excellent view of the room.
"Where is Dali?" I asked him.
"In the hot tub." Jim shrugged, his face tainted with feline disgust. "There is one adjacent to the locker room. If there is an inch of running water, she'll crawl into it. Tigers."
"I didn't know jaguars minded water." I had seen him swim before. He seemed to enjoy it.
"I don't mind swimming if there are fish or frogs involved."
Jaguar logic for you. "Everyone made it?"
"Except for the freak."
Knowing Saiman, he probably had to hire extra help to carry all his clothes.
Dali entered the room, modestly wrapped in a towel, which she immediately dropped to wave at me, and began to dress.
Derek raised his head, suddenly alert. "Incoming. Several people."
Rene appeared in the doorway. "Your owner sends his apologies. It seems your original Stone won't be joining you, but Durand sent in a substitute." She stepped aside. "In you go."