Jezebel thrust her chin at me. “I challenged my sister for her place in the clan.”

“How did it go?”

“I lost.”

I sat up straighter. Duels for dominance between the shapeshifters were to the death. Always. “Why are you still breathing?”

“She stabbed me in the heart with her claws. I went into cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for eight minutes. When I came to, my sister couldn’t bring herself to kill me the second time. It reflects badly on her and on me. I’m a walking dead, and as long as I’m around, I’m the proof that she was weak.”

Great. You really had to admire Aunt B. If either of them left the clan on their own, it could have been taken as a sign of cowardice on their part. As it was, their honor was intact.

“Are you any good at Pack politics?”

“He’s very good,” Jezebel said. “I’m better with force, but I know the rules. I know what people can and can’t do. I’m not stupid and I can be useful to you.”

I sighed. “You’re both hired. I have a Council meeting in four hours. They’re going to try to remove me. Find out what I should expect.”

I got up and went back to Curran. I was two thirds of the way through The Princess Bride and he would want to know what happened next.

When I walked in, Derek rose from the chair. “About Julie . . .”


He straightened, his new face looking too tight on his bones. “I lied. She didn’t call me.”

I fought an urge to slump over. Now he was lying to me. “Is she okay?”

“I’m okay,” a thin voice said from the middle of the room.

I turned. Julie sat on the floor with her feet under her. She wore a black sweater and her face seemed very pale against the dark wool, almost transparent. Huge dark eyes looked at me.

She got up. “I ran away.”

I crossed the floor and hugged her. Derek backed out of the room.

“I went home,” Julie said softly. “I was worried. There is no home left. All of our stuff is gone. What happened?”

“It’s a long story.” At least I kept her safe.

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, kiddo.” I squeezed her to me and kissed her blond hair. “You’re alive. Everything else we can fix.”

FOUR HOURS LATER I SAT IN CURRAN’S PRIVATE meeting room. Barabas sat across from me. Jezebel perched on the table and Derek leaned against the door. Julie had volunteered to read to Curran.

“You are not universally loved,” Barabas said.

Tell me something I don’t know.

“There are seven clans,” he continued. “Of the seven, you can count on the support of Clan Cat, and unless my Great Aunt B is doing a complete turnabout, the boudas are on your side as well. The wolves are fanatically loyal to Curran. Normally they would be behind you all the way, but you killed Jennifer’s little sister.”

The twisted body of the little werewolf flashed before me. “It couldn’t be helped.”

“Nobody is disputing the kill,” Barabas said. “It was a justifiable death, and given time, Jennifer will see that. But right now, she is in mourning. She has to blame someone, because she can’t blame herself any more than she does already. All of that puts Daniel in a difficult position. He won’t oppose you. That would be disloyal to Curran. But he can’t support you either, because he has to be loyal to his mate. The proper course of action in cases like this is to abstain, and Wolves always do the proper thing. So he won’t hurt you, but he won’t help you either.”

“That’s three,” I said.

Barabas nodded. “Next we have Clan Heavy, the large predators who don’t fit into the other packs. Wereboars, were-bison, werewolverines, even a werebaboon, but most of them are bears and bears hate to be surprised. They like the status quo and Mahon is a typical bear. He will probably oppose you. It’s nothing personal. You just don’t fit into his picture of the way it ought to be.” Barabas leaned forward and framed an imaginary square box with his hands, palms facing each other. “At eighteen, people like me have a choice: we can stay with the clan of our parents or we can go to the clan of our beast. I chose to stay with the boudas. All my friends were there and my family, and I didn’t know anybody in Clan Nimble. Mahon sat me down shortly after and wanted to know why.”

“He had no right to ask,” Jezebel growled.

“We just had a conversation.” Barabas glanced at her. “I explained my reasons, but he couldn’t wrap his head around it. To him, I was a mongoose and my place was with Clan Nimble, because that’s the way it ought to be. You’re a human who is the Beast Lord’s mate and who now nominally occupies the place of Pack Alpha. That doesn’t compute in his brain and he will dig his heels in.”

“He also raised Curran,” Jezebel said. “He’s a strong supporter of the Beast Lord, and the Beast Lord chose you.”

Barabas nodded. “She’s right. When Mahon looks at Curran and you, he sees little babies, which to him means dynasty and stability. If he thinks there is a chance that Curran will pull through, he may decide not to make waves.”

“So he could go either way?”

“Yes,” Barabas said. “Clan Nimble is being secretive as usual, so we couldn’t find out anything. Clan Rat is problematic.”

Derek stirred. “You know the Lonescos.”

A predatory light flashed in Barabas’s eyes. “Why, because all gay men know each other?”

“You ran patrols of the north side with the rats for two years,” Derek said.

Jezebel snorted at Barabas. “Dumbass.”

Barabas grimaced. “Fine, I walked into that one. The rats are neophobic. They hate new, they don’t attack unless they know they can win, and they trust nobody. The Lonescos don’t know you. They won’t help you.”

So far, this was shaping decidedly not in my favor.

“Your biggest problem is the jackals,” Barabas said. “They’re a new couple. They came from the West about two years ago, waited for the required time in the Pack, and challenged the old alphas. Took them right out. They’re nasty in a fight and ambitious. They see you as an easy mark and they’re itching for a chance to snarl and show everybody their big teeth. They’ll kill you and won’t think twice about it.”

“Can the Council remove me?”

Barabas grimaced again. “It’s a touchy situation. Technically, yes. You’re mated to Curran, nobody questions that. But you have yet to prove yourself as an alpha. Until the mate of an alpha proves herself, she is treated as a rank-and-file member and is subject to the authority of the Council. This almost never happens. I could only find one case in the last twenty years, where the alpha of the Clan Wolf died before his mate could prove himself.”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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