The hallway led me to the stairway of a million steps. My leg screamed in protest. I sighed and started climbing. I just had to keep from limping. Limping showed weakness, and I didn't need any enterprising, career-motivated shapeshifters trying to challenge me for dominance right about now.
I had once mentioned my desire for an elevator, and His Majesty asked me if I would like a flock of doves to carry me up to my quarters so my feet wouldn't have to touch the ground. We were sparring at the time and I kicked him in the kidney in retaliation.
Eight o'clock equaled about two p.m. in shapeshifter terms. The Keep was full. People bobbed their heads at me as I passed. Most of them I didn't know. The Pack counted fifteen hundred shapeshifters. I was learning the names but it took time. By the second flight of stairs, something started grinding in my knee. I had a choice: either I had it fixed now or it would fail me the next time I had a serious fight. My imagination painted a lovely picture of me lunging into battle and my leg snapping like a toothpick. Great.
I stopped on the third floor and not-limped my way to Doolittle's medical ward. The woman in the front room took one look at me and ran back to get the doctor. I landed in the chair and exhaled. Sitting was good.
The double doors opened and Doolittle emerged from the depths of the hospital, looking fussy. In his fifties, dark-skinned, his hair cut short, Doolittle radiated kind patience. Even if you were near death, the moment you looked into his eyes, you knew that he would take care of you and somehow everything was going to be all right. In the past year I had been near death quite a few times, and every time Doolittle had fixed me. He was hands down the best medmage I'd ever encountered.
He also carried on like a frazzled mother hen. That was why normally I avoided him at all costs.
Doolittle looked me over, probably searching for signs of bleeding and shards of broken bones poking through my skin. "What's the problem?"
"Nothing major. My knee is hurting a little."
Doolittle peered at me. "The very fact that you are here means that you're on the verge of fainting."
"It's really not that bad."
Doolittle's fingers probed my knee. Pain shot into my leg. I clenched my teeth.
"Heaven help me." The good doctor heaved a sigh. "What did you do?"
Doolittle took my hand, turned it palm up, and sniffed my fingers. "Crawling around on all fours is very bad for you. Not to mention undignified."
I leaned toward him. "I've got a client."
"Congratulations. Now, I'm just a simple Southern doctor ..."
Here we go. Behind Doolittle the nurse rolled her eyes.
". . . but it seems to me that it would be much more prudent to have a working leg. However, since you have no major bleeding, no concussion, and no broken bones, I shall count my blessings."
I clamped my mouth shut. Any discourse with Doolittle when he was in this mood would just result in an hour-long lecture. The Pack medic whispered. His voice built to a low murmur, a measured chant spilling from his lips. The pain in my knee receded, dulled by medmagic. Doolittle straightened. "I'll mix you a solution and send it up to your quarters. Will you be needing a stretcher?"
"I'll make it on my own power." I pushed to my feet. "Thank you."
I left the hospital and continued my climb. The knee screamed but held. Eventually the stairs ended, bringing me to a narrow landing before a large reinforced door. During business hours, eleven a.m. to eight p.m., the door stood open. I walked through it and nodded to the guard behind the desk on the left.
Seraphine tore herself away from the bag of popcorn long enough to duck her head, sending her nest of braids into a shiver, and went back to her food. Being a wererat, she had the metabolism of a shrew. The rats ate constantly or they got the shakes.
Derek stepped out of the side office and nodded at me.
"Your nods keep getting deeper and deeper." Pretty soon it would be a bow, and we'd had words about that. The only things I disliked more than being bowed to was being called Mate.
He shrugged. "Maybe I'm just growing taller."
I surveyed him. Derek used to be embarrassingly pretty. Beautiful even. Then terrible things had happened, and now nobody would call him pretty, not even in weak light. No sane person would dare to even bring up the subject of his face. The boy wonder wasn't disfigured, although he thought he was and nobody could tell him different. His face had hardened and lost its perfect beauty. He looked dangerous and vicious, and his eyes, once brown and soft, were now almost black and had no give in them. If I met him in a dark alley, I'd think very hard about stepping aside. Luckily, he'd once played Robin to my Batman, and whatever happened, he was on my side.
We headed down the hallway. Derek took a deep breath, the way shapeshifters did when they sampled the air for scents. "I see Andrea is back."
"She is. And how is His Great Fussiness today?"
Derek's eyes sparked a bit. "His Majesty is in an ill humor. Rumors are flying that his mate almost got herself shot."
Derek worshipped the ground Curran walked on, but he was still a nineteen-year-old boy and occasionally he came out of his shell for a quip. His humor was dry and hidden deep. I was grateful it had survived at all. "Where are my boudas?" Before I became a Beast Lady, Aunt B, the alpha of the boudas, and I struck a bargain. I'd help Clan Bouda when they got in trouble--and they got in trouble a lot--and in return Aunt B gave me two of her finest, Barabas and Jezebel, who'd help me navigate the murky swamp of the Pack politics. They referred to themselves as my advisors. In reality they were my nannies.
"Barabas is asleep in the guardroom and Jezebel went downstairs to get some food."
"Any messages for me?"
"The Temple called."
This ought to be interesting. I'd gone to the Temple trying to restore a Jewish parchment to figure out my aunt's identity. She took exception to that and the Temple had suffered some damage. The rabbis had chased me off the Temple grounds, but not before one of them healed my wounds. I hadn't handled the entire situation very well, so when the storm was over, I'd packed the parchment's fragment and sent it to the Temple as a gift, with my apologies.
"Rabbi Peter sends his regards. He's very happy with the parchment. It has some sort of historical value. You've been forgiven and you may visit the Temple, provided you give them twenty-four hours' notice."
To mobilize their forces, no doubt, and lay out an adequate supply of paper and pens to counteract whatever trouble I unleashed. Jewish mysticism was difficult to study, but it gave its practitioners great rewards. When rabbis said that the pen was mightier than the sword, they meant it.