In all of our time together I had seen him in a formal suit exactly twice, including today. Curran could be described in many ways: dangerous, powerful . . . insufferable. "Elegant" usually wasn't one of the adjectives used, and as he walked next to me, I wished I had a camera so I could commemorate the moment. And then blackmail him with it.

He shrugged again.

"You keep doing it, the suit will fall apart."

"I should've worn jeans."

"Then I'd look ridiculous next to you." I should've worn jeans, too.

"Baby, you never look ridiculous."

"Smart man," Aunt B volunteered behind us.

I wore a black dress. Like Curran's suit, it was custom-made for me by the Pack's tailors specifically for the trip. The elastic fabric hugged me like a glove, giving a deceiving impression that it was constraining. The artfully draped skirt fell in straight lines, hiding the fact that it opened enough to let me kick an attacker taller than me in the head, and the diagonal strap over my right shoulder ensured that the dress wouldn't fall off if I had to move fast. The dress also had to be doing wonders for my butt, because Curran had managed to run his hand down my back twice since we left our rooms.

But even the best dress offered no way to hide Slayer, so I didn't bother. The dress came with a built-in fabric sheath, lined with leather, and my sword rested securely against my back. I'd left my hair braided. Plain black shoes with a low heel fit my feet like slippers. I would've felt better in my boots, but boots didn't go with the dress. Even I had standards.

I did have to surrender my knives, but I wore a bracelet on each wrist and a long necklace, all made of braided silver. They looked like strips of chain mail and weighed as much. Curran insisted on my new fancy jewelry. Given that we were trapped in a castle filled with hostile shapeshifters I didn't fight him on it.

Behind us Desandra walked in, sandwiched between Barabas and Derek. Aunt B, Mahon, and George followed, then Andrea and Raphael. Raphael was a picture of urbane elegance in black, while Andrea wore a deep rust-red. It looked like blood and she was a knockout.

Doolittle declined to go to dinner and remained behind in his quarters, and I asked Eduardo and Keira to stay with him as well. This place was making me paranoid. They locked themselves in and barred the door before we left. Hopefully Keira wouldn't decide to explore her buffalo steak fantasies.

Vast, with towering walls, the great hall seemed cavernous. Four big tables, each large enough to seat at least twenty people, stood in two long lines, leaving a large space between them. Toward the opposite end of the chamber, a head table, shaped like a rectangular horseshoe, waited on a raised platform.

I scanned the room, looking for problems. Three exits: the one we just came through, one on the left, and one on the right, each manned by a pair of djigits. No matter where I sat, unless it was at the head table, my back would be to one of the doors. Ugh.

On the left a discreet stairway led to a minstrel's gallery, a high indoor balcony that spanned the length of the entire left wall. Shadows shrouded the gallery. I saw no movement, but if I wanted to kill someone, I'd put a sniper up there.

None of this was making me feel warm and fuzzy.

About fifty people milled about the hall, some talking in small groups, others by themselves. Men wore suits and tuxedos. Women wore gowns. Most eyes flashed with a shapeshifter glow. People turned and looked at us, looked at Curran, looked at the handle of my sword protruding over my shoulder. A few men looked lower at my chest. They were shapeshifters and notoriously difficult to kill, while I was a human. The fact that I carried a sharpened strip of metal on my back didn't worry them any. I was an oddity, the human mate. They appraised me like a horse at a livestock market, and my br**sts were clearly making a bigger impression than my sword.

Curran locked his teeth.

"We just got here," I whispered. "It's too early for you to start killing people."

"It's never too early for me," he said.

"Double standard much?"

Hibla met us halfway across the hall and led us to our seats. Curran and I sat at the head table on the right side of an oversized wooden chair that wanted very much to be a throne and had to belong to the head of the table. Place of honor. Whoop-de-doo. At least my back was to a solid wall.

Curran took his seat, I sat next to him, Desandra sat next to me, and Andrea parked herself on the other side of Desandra and looked at the balcony. Raphael sat next to her, and Mahon and Aunt B sat next to him. George stood behind her father. Barabas stood behind me.

"You're hovering," I told him.

"I'm supposed to hover."

I settled in the large chair. The minstrel's gallery loomed above us to the right. It bothered me. I couldn't see into it. If someone shot at us, I wouldn't know until it was too late. We might as well have pinned a target to Desandra's head.


Our guide leaned toward me. "Yes, lady?"

"Could you tell me who chose these seats?"

"Lord Megobari."

Great. Changing seats would likely offend him to death, and besides, all seats at this table offered a great target from the gallery.

Curran leaned to me. "What's the matter?"

"I don't like the gallery. She isn't safe."

People turned toward an entrance directly across from us.

"Someone's coming," Barabas murmured.

Curran inhaled. "Kral."

Jarek Kral walked into the room. He wore a black suit and walked as if everyone in the room owed him allegiance. A few people glared back, while others tried to fade into the woodwork. Four men walked behind him, moving in unison, a well-honed unit. The way they scanned the room for threats telegraphed experience. Wasn't surprising. Jarek didn't strike me as the type to make friends.

Jarek made a beeline for our table and took a seat on the other side of the throne. Two of his guys sat next to him, the other two stood behind him. Barabas had given us a basic rundown on Kral's people. This was his inner circle: two brothers with the last name Guba, a middle-aged bald man who looked like he could run through solid walls, and Renok, Kral's second-in-command, a tall shapeshifter in his midthirties with a boxer's jaw contoured by a short dark beard.

Jarek looked at Curran. "I see you grew up, boy."

Did he just call Curran boy? Yes, he did.

"I see you grew old," Curran said. "You look smaller than I remember."

"I'm still big enough for you."

"You never were, and now you never will be. You're getting on, Jarek."

"Last time I wanted to kill you, but you had Wilson with you. Now you're all alone. I will kill you this time." Jarek smiled, a controlled baring of teeth.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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