"Your rooms are on the third floor," Hibla said. "Dinner will be served at ten."
"Late for a human," I said. In the Keep we typically ate dinner around nine. Shapeshifters weren't early risers, since they tended to stay up half of the night.
"The Megobari family respects the customs of its guests," Hibla said.
"I will see all of you at dinner." Lorelei said, looking directly at Curran.
"Looking forward to it," Curran said.
I felt an urge to stab something and squished it. Lorelei retreated down the hallway.
"Where is Desandra?" Curran asked.
"She is in her quarters, on the third floor also," Hibla said.
Curran turned. "Hibla, we need to see Desandra. Now."
Andrea passed her bag to Raphael and came to stand by me. Derek came to stand by Curran.
"Very well." Hibla said something in a lilting language.
The daggered dozen split: eight went with the rest of the group, led by an older man, and four came with us. We climbed the same stairs, and then Hibla turned right, while the rest of the shapeshifters turned left. We followed her to a metal door, guarded by a man and a woman in the same dark djigit coats. They moved aside as Hibla unlocked the door.
The stench of rotten citrus washed over me. Not good.
We stepped into a huge room. It was the size of my entire first apartment with all the walls knocked out. The vast ceiling rose to fully thirty feet in height, and gloom obscured the massive wooden beams running high above. Clothes lay strewn all over the floor, some shredded, some stained, punctuated by crumpled papers, food-stained plates, and shards of broken glass. A large wooden bed piled high with pillows and clumped blankets stood against one wall. A pregnant woman sat on it, her long hair tangled and dangling down over her purple dress. She looked up. Her irises shone with orange shapeshifter fluorescence.
I looked at Andrea. She looked back at me. I saw the exact same thought on her face: this job was going to suck.
"Hello, Desandra," Curran said.
"That's nice," Curran said. "It smells like rotten food in here."
Desandra shrugged. "Why are you here?"
No trace of an accent. She spoke like she was born in the United States.
"We're here to take care of you."
"That's bullshit and you know it." She bared her teeth. "You'll make the deal with whatever clan pays you more and sell these little parasites in my stomach. So go, make your deals. Nothing will change for me. Nothing ever changes for me."
"Are you done?" Curran asked.
"You could've taken me away from all this," she snarled.
"You wouldn't last a week in Atlanta," he said.
She stabbed her finger in my direction. "And she's better? After all of your grandstanding, and oh, I'm the Beast Lord and nobody is good enough for me, you mated with a human? A human? You're just like them." She waved her arm at Hibla and the djigits. "You don't give a f**k about what happens to your human wife if she's challenged. Why don't you just leave?"
Muscles played on Curran's jaw. "Think what you want, but I'll stay here and I will protect you."
"Do you really think they'll give you panacea for it? Come on, even you're not that stupid."
Gold flashed in Curran's irises. I had to stomp on this fast before it spiraled out of control.
I put my hand on Curran's shoulder. "I think it would be best if you gave us a little space."
He glanced at me.
"And if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you sent Doolittle up here."
Curran shook his head and looked at Derek. "Close the room. Nobody comes in unless Kate says so."
"Yes, my lord," Derek said.
Curran strode out of the room.
"That's right!" Desandra called out. "Walk away!"
Derek parked himself in the doorway.
I surveyed the bedroom. I'd seen this kind of mess before in Julie's room, when she went through an "I don't want to go to school" stage. "Hibla, why is this room dirty?"
"The lady won't permit us to clean it," Hibla said. "Her father ordered it cleaned once, and we did. The lady returned it to its previous state within a week."
Just as I'd thought. I turned to Desandra. "May I come closer?"
She stared at me.
"Sure." She shrugged.
I crossed the room, stepping on clothes-there was no choice. Something crunched under my feet. I sat next to her on the bed.
"I get what you're doing. You don't feel in control of your life, but this bedroom is your space and you can do whatever you want here. Here you're in control. Unfortunately, having food on the floor isn't healthy. It rots. Mold grows on it and gets in your lungs." And the mess made her that much harder to guard.
She sneered at me. "I'm a shapeshifter."
"Shapeshifters are resistant to disease but not immune. Rotten food also gives bugs a place to breed, and it smells bad. Broken glass isn't safe for anyone to walk on. People who bring you food may not always be shapeshifters. They could be hurt, and they're only doing their job."
"I don't care."
"Having a dirty room doesn't really help you regain control over your life. That fight is out there." I pointed at the open door. "The mess just makes you appear deranged, which signals to people that it's okay to treat you as if you're not a person."
Desandra dug her hands into her matted hair. "What do you want from me?"
"May I have your permission to clean this room?"
"Why do you care?"
"Because I take pride in my job. Right now my job is to take care of you and keep you safe. This bedroom is unsafe for you and your future children. The mess also makes it difficult to protect you."
Desandra stared at me. "And what if I rip out your throat?"
I dug through my memory to fights with Julie. "Why would you do that? I didn't do anything mean to you."
"What if I say no?"
Andrea shrugged. "If you say no, then we won't clean the room. But I do have to tell you that the room smells bad, and that smell has settled in your clothes and hair."
At least in the United States, telling a shapeshifter they smelled bad was the ultimate insult. If that didn't motivate her, nothing would.
Desandra growled in my face.
"I'm on your side," I told her. "If you want to demonstrate that you're in control of yourself, you might want to take it into consideration."
"I don't want you to clean anything."